THE WILD TURKEY COULD HAVE BEEN America’s representative animal. The wild–nearly mythological--tale of Turkey v. Bald Eagle originates in a disparity between “Founding Fathers” (or could we say, founding feathers) Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin as to what iconic image would constitute the National Seal. According to wildturkeyzone.com,
“On July 4 1776, the First Continental Congress selected a committee to design the Great Seal of the United States of America. It was the task of three founding fathers: Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson to select a political icon that best reflected the new country. ”
In democracy, majority consensus ‘wins’–and thus, the bald eagle was voted in as the quintessential American avian-hero. However, majority rule is not necessarily representative of better options or opinions (or even the ‘fairness’ democracy claims to pave the way for). Ben Franklin, a minority in the vote, stated in a letter to his daughter,
“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly…For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America…”
(Hmmm…voting in a representative for America who is of “bad moral Character”…sounds dreadfully recently familiar…)
John James Audubon observed:
“Male turkeys can turn their heads red, white and blue by controlling the flow of oxygen to their heads while strutting.” (wildturkeyzone.com)
(Now, I’ll say, that’s American!)
After several weird image proposals from the Founding Fathers (including a dramatic Exodus scene, the rattlesnake from the Gadsgen flag, and some sort of Americanized Adam and Eve), the final image for the current-day National Seal originated from a sketch done in 1782 by Charles Thomson (greatseal.com), (below left), which was refined into the current Seal (below right) (images Wikimedia Commons).
The wide-spread spread-eagle eagle is depicted clutching the opposing forces of peace (olive branch) in one foot and war (arrows) in the other. In his beak waves the paradoxical banner reading, “Out of Many, One“. And let us not forget the reverse design, which can be seen along with the National Seal on every dollar bill:
Centuries after the National Seal was adopted, the Lunar Module named Eagle, manned by two American astronauts, landed on the moon. On July 20, 1969, the voice of Neil Armstrong traveled through space, reverberating back to planet earth with the phrase “the Eagle has landed”. The winning Apollo 11 mission to the moon bore the insignia of a bald eagle landing on the moon bearing the olive branch of peace.
Though turkeys (or bald eagles) haven’t (yet) been to the moon, there was no shortage of wild turkeys throughout America during its colonization. Audubon wrote in 1840,
“At the time when I removed to Kentucky, rather more than a fourth of a century ago, Turkeys were so abundant that the price of one in the market was not equal to that of a common barn fowl now”
To this day, the turkey is the principle icon of the quintessential autumnal American holiday: Thanksgiving. Being an abundant source of food and already bearing spiritual and practical significance for the local Native Americans, the turkey was the natural center-stage hero in “the first Thanksgiving”, purported to have been in 1621, though the first recorded “official” Thanksgiving occurred in 1623 in Plymouth, Massachusetts (National Geographic Kids). The turkey appears as the center of a Ven diagram between Native Americans and Colonists, symbolizing common ground upon which the “natives” and “settlers” could peacefully feast together on. However harmonious the first Thanksgiving may have been, it was not, practically speaking, a lasting truce. “The peace between the Native Americans and settlers lasted for only a generation…the holiday is a reminder of betrayal and bloodshed” (National Geographic Kids). And however thankful the Colonists were of the abundance of the American turkey, like many species in the “civilized” (colonized) parts of the world, the wild turkey population declined drastically over the centuries. Both the turkey and the voted-in icon of the National Seal–the bald eagle–have, since the “founding” of America, endured episodes of endangered-ment (or, as in the case of the turkey, endangered-meat). Luckily, in time, human beings awakened to their errors and got their shit together enough to restore both birds to a non-endangered status. As change is the only constant, we must renew and revisit our thanksgiving continually, as nothing–from turkeys to bald eagles to peace between disparate groups to America as a whole–will last “forever”.
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:19).
But Jesus said,
“Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).
“Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).
And He was saying, “The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows–how, he himself does not know. The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head” (Mark 4:26-29).
Working with what is already HERE–with the present, natural, and ultimately wild environmental conditions–is working with reality as it stands. All else is at best fantasy; at worst, psychosis. All else becomes Man v. Nature: the most vehement case of human ego delusion, a parasitic plant which grows in toxic soil, rooting down into the bowels of Hell.
In the case of growing a garden, whether it be for fruits or decoration (which it will ultimately be both), this means being aware, accepting, and working with the limitations of one’s immediate environment. As humans capable of ridiculous feats (like going to the moon), we can push the envelope of reality quite a bit: we can, effectively, grow a tropical oasis in a desert, if we set out to. (After all, tropical oases do exist on their own, so we are just copying nature anyway, right?). This construction of a new reality–a man-made oases–can be incredible, indeed, fantastical–but also downright impractical and unsustainable. Since in the case of agriculture the given environment may not on its own support itself, it is up to the individual (agricultural owner, landscaping company or corporation, in many cases) to sustain its existence. This is practical only so far humans are willing to cultivate it based on its predetermined needs (i.e. lawn grass needs constant watering a mowing). Lawn grass won’t thrive on its own in Santa Clarita, so it is normal–unquestionable and even justifiable–to see sprinklers going off at 3pm when driving along the 126 (right?). The lawn grass just has to be grown because the tract housing in the Santa Clarita valley depends upon it; homeowners must have their perfectly manicured lawn to contraction and cancel out the natural state of their environment (which is essentially desert). They simply must be able to buy their fantasy of living in a place where grass grows. (They don’t want the grass to be greener on the other side!) And growing grass for this purpose commercially makes sense because it makes money–end of story. The logic is: as long as it makes money, it makes sense! Unfortunately, Nature knows nothing of money nor cares for that type of paper greenery; and since Nature is ultimately “the Boss” and reality itself, money-making logic is rebellion against reality–a Luciferian psychosis.
Such is the ongoing logic of capitalism in America. And now the (not popularly elected!) 45th “boss” of the United States operates out of this logic. And as the curtains have been drawn back we are seeing a staged “problem” of “native” Americans (natural born citizens) opposed to supposed “illegal aliens”. The psychotic split of “us vs. them” is the ongoing drama, another version of the illusion of man vs. nature.
So what now constitutes a “native” American? Am I “native” to America because I was born in America? Am I “native” because I am 1/16 Chickasaw Native American (though the Chickasaws were not native to California where I live!). Am I “native” to Ojai because I grew up here and have spent most of my life here–though I wasn’t born here? Is the turkey a “native” bird to Ojai because it roams and propagates freely among the Ojai agricultural ecosystem? Is the turkey an animal of my “native” heritage because the Chickasaw made turkey feather capes? Overall what I am curious about is: in this exceptionally globalized village, what makes something “native”? What makes something “indigenous” (as the word of choice to describe A.E.I.O.U., which stands for Artists of Earth: Indigenous Ojai Underground?) And what makes these distinctions matter?
Above is a painting of my 1/2 Chickasaw great grandfather Benjamin Williford (on my mother’s mom’s side) done by my great grandmother Bee LaFevers (on my mother’s dad’s side). Both culturally and genetically, he was more classically “Native American” than I will ever be. But in today’s world, where there are dwindling numbers of half-blood (let alone full blood) “Native Americans”, what now constitutes a “Native American”? Point of arrival: what constitutes something as “native” must inevitably change and can no longer mean what it used to in simplistic terms.
In the interest of growing plants, perhaps what makes defining “native” vs. “non-native” important has to do with taking into account one’s immediate climate and ecosystem (which, as anyone even partially aware knows, is on the broadest scale possible undergoing rapid transformation, for better or worse). My backyard oasis won’t grow well without my persistent and informed care-taking, whereas my frontyard “native” landscaping is designed to essentially grow on its own, supported by the local climate, flora and fauna. Working with what is already present–in the form of nature (reality)–is what allows for infinite abundance and continual life and growth. Optimistically (rather than opportunistically), humans have the capacity to both work with this and create oases in deserts–and both can be “sustainable”, simply because of the truth that nothing lasts forever anyway.
Perhaps being or becoming “native” somewhere involves tuning in and connecting with the immediate environment. This is the wisdom of the classic Native Americans: working with the nature that surrounds. Everything you need is here. Turkeys abundant!
Alan Watts, that ingenious “bridge person” (as Terence McKenna would say) philosopher of East-meets-West, quotes in his book, The Book, an exceptionally alchemical passage from the Bible attributed to Jesus: “When you make the two the one, and when you make the inner and the outer and the outer as the inner and the above as the below…then shall you enter [the Kingdom]….Cleave [a piece] of wood, I am there; lift up the stone and you will find Me there” (Watts 19).
As a tenet of Hermeticism says:
As Above so Below
As the pledge of allegiance says:
One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all
In conclusion, I would like to present the Caduceus song “Turkeys” from our debut album Saturn Return, released May 2017. Technically speaking it is my first musical composition that fruited into a complete song, and was inspired by a Zen-like moment of awakening upon witnessing the subject of the song.
Listen to “Turkeys” online here.
All images except when noted by Celeste M. Evans
Audubon, John James. The Birds of America.
Evans Schultes, Richard and Hofman, Albert. Plants of the Gods. Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 1992.
Knowing Jesus. “21 Bible Verses about Kingdom of Heaven”. <https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Kingdom-Of-Heaven>
National Geographic Kids. “First Thanksgiving”. <http://kids.nationalgeographic.com/explore/history/first-thanksgiving/>
Watts, Alan. The Book.
Wikipedia. “Wild Turkey”. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_turkey>.
Wild Turkey Zone, The. “Early Colonial American History of the Wild Turkey”. <http://wildturkeyzone.com/wildturkey/speciesb.htm>
IN LATE OCTOBER 2014, not long after returning to Ojai after living in the Los Angeles area for many years, I took a series of photographs documenting the Ojai Valley as it appeared relative to the Southern California drought. I went to four locales within the Valley: Lake Casitas, the Ojai Meadows Preserve, the Ventura River Preserve, and Upper Ojai. Through the camera lens I looked to capture signs and symptoms of drought within our habitat. Again this year at the end of October I set out to photograph these same places. I returned to the Lake, the River, the Meadows, and Upper Ojai to capture ways in which the environment has visibly shifted over the past two years. I was not surprised to find noticeable and measurable changes; at the same time, I found plenty of greenery, life, and evidence that the ecosystem is thriving best it can within such an extreme state of existence.
When I began photographing in October 2014, it had only been 7 months since the State of California declared a Drought State of Emergency on January 17th, 2014. The declaration is still in effect, and as of July 1st of this year, the Casitas Municipal Water District mandated a Stage 3 Drought, urging even tighter restrictions on water usage. According to an article in the VC Star written April 18th of this year, Lake Casitas water level has dropped 69 feet, the lowest it has been since it first began to fill in the 1960’s, after the dam was built. The lake’s capacity has dropped into the 40% range, prompting mandatory emergency water conservation efforts (VC Star).
All water in the Ojai Valley–the lake, rivers, and wells–comes from the Ventura River Watershed. As our watershed is 100% comprised of local water sources (no water is imported, as in many other watersheds), our backup in times of drying rivers and wells is the man-made Lake Casitas (venturawatershed.org). However, it is predicted that if the drought continues its course, Lake Casitas will be virtually dry in 4-6 years. As the Ventura River Watershed via the Casitas Municipal Water District supplies water to 60-70,000 people and hundreds of farms within Ventura County (casitaswater.org), these statistics are worrisome. Having grown up with Lake Casitas as a given environmental fixture, it is dream-like–even somewhat alienating–to walk on dry land which I had previously traversed many times via boat.
In my childhood I regularly visited the Lake, where I would ride in the family’s small and leaky aluminum boat (named ‘Sludge’), host my November birthday parties at one of the many picnic areas complete with metal and plastic jungle gym, and explore the native flora and fauna. One of my first significant works of art (initially untitled, but which I now call First Duck), was created in response to an intense encounter feeding mallard ducks bread crumbs outside the Marina Cafe, at the impressionable age of 5.
Though there is still a significant population of various ducks and (hopefully not too relevantly) vultures at Lake Casitas, the body of water which is the main attraction is a whisper of what I grew up experiencing.
Growing up in Ojai and living here most of my life has imprinted in me very strong memories of the shifting seasons: the repeating cycles and patterns of weather and growth year to year. The climate throughout my childhood was relatively regular and predictable; when an extreme or unusual weather was predicted–such as El Nino–it would rain the deluge expected. I won’t forget the El Nino of 1997/8: fast-moving water blanketing all surfaces–rapids rushing tunnels under streets–rising up front door steps inch by inch–backyard pool drowned in brown water.
Late Winter, Spring and Summer have come and gone this year providing less than our average rainfall, despite the prediction (and desperate hype) of an El Nino deluge. As of January, this El Nino has produced only 50% of what El Nino produced from October 1997 to January 1998 (3.77inches vs. 7.6 inches) (accuweather.com). While we have received more rain this year than the past couple of years, it is clear El Nino will not bail us out of the drought. What is considered ‘average’ or ‘normal’ yearly rainfall for Ventura County is around 16 inches (currentresults.com); The Los Angeles Almanac calculated that the Los Angeles area received around 10 inches between July 2015 and June 2016. If the pattern of drought continues, perhaps what is considered ‘average’ rainfall will have to be readjusted. Boat launches at Lake Casitas are closed or readjusted as the shore recedes and as bodies of water become increasingly more shallow and isolated.
Even those who do not remember the Lake before the drought conditions began to drain it can witness the visual strata revealed from the dramatic lowering of the waterline:
The dwindling of water in the Lake has, on a positive note, unearthed (or perhaps, ‘unwatered’) some interesting history which has been buried for over half a century. Before the dam was built in 1959, Highway 150–which now winds around the lake through the hills–traversed the basin, routing people to their homes and even a school house built in the 1920’s (VC Star). A road which was ‘history’ decades ago is now an element of the landscape once again.
Worth mentioning, though unrelated to the drought, is a find at Lake Casitas from the year 2000: fossilized whale bones dating back 25 million years (Los Angeles Times). This was no freshwater whale! Fossils of undersea creatures such as mollusks and starfish found in the upper Sespe Creek area indicate that millions of years ago the area was oceanic (Wikipedia). Not to mention the epic Piedra Blanca (‘white rock’) in the Sepse Wilderness (whose rock face to me looks like a victim of glacier striation). These tangible facts remind us that the Ojai Valley and surrounding Los Padres Forest have gone through many variations of climate change even before humans existed. In my own explorations of the Lake, I engaged in a form of time travel as I stumbled upon various mummies from the past:
In addition to man-made artifacts, I found evidence of flora and fauna thriving, striving, and struggling. Overall, native plants are less lush than they traditionally have been. Yet many, like this Epilobium canum, (California Red Fuchsia), manage to happily speckle the browning grey landscape with vibrant primary color:
Non-native (and water-hogging) plants like the Eucalyptus are fairing less well–but perhaps this is just as well.
Unfortunately, however, some native species, like Quercus Agrifolia–the iconic Coast Live Oak–are having an undeniably rough time pulling through between rains. Though many other native trees like the Sycamore have been revealing signs of stress, only the Live Oaks have been dying in large numbers. The dried oaks also increase the likelihood and intensity of wildfires (VC Star).
It is hard to know what effects the decrease of oak trees in the Valley will have on the total ecosystem. The iconic nature of the Coast Live Oak in Ojai goes beyond aesthetic appreciation: it must certainly be iconic to the nature it is a part of–a sort of leader among the native flora and fauna. In the Pacific Northwest there were fossils discovered of the Coast Live Oak dating 20 million years back, suggesting that the tree has undergone little evolutionary change (Cal Poly Land), and implying that it has been a member of the California ecosystem for at least that long. In more recent (but still seemingly distant) times, its acorns were a staple food for at least twelve Native American tribes throughout California (Wikipedia).
Though we ‘contemporary’ humans no longer rely on native plants for food, the cultivation of crops in Ojai–the agriculture which supports our community nutritionally, economically, and spiritually–is inevitably hampered by the drying up of the Ventura River Watershed. Ojai’s agriculture–from our iconic orange orchards to organic farms and small co-ops–completely depend upon local water sources. In the Fall 2016 edition of Edible Ojai & Ventura County, local organic farmer and owner of Farmer and the Cook restaurant Steve Sprinkel declared that water in the well he irrigates from has decreased by 50% since 2013. Proposed efforts to shuttle water from non-local sources do not bring much promise of fulfilling the water needs of farmers, let alone the rest of the community.
Though there is a limit to what we as humans can do to alleviate the symptoms of drought and climate change, people have been and are continuing to make concerted efforts to rehabilitate and conserve our habitat. In 2001 The Ojai Valley Land Conservancy acquired a plot of abused and neglected land which is now the Ojai Meadows Preserve. Efforts over the years to re-establish a native ecosystem there include diverting flood waters into the area and replacing non-native plants with native ones (Ojai Land Conservancy). Now a protected and accessible chunk of landscape many native species call home, it is a living educational showcase of the many facets of our local ecosystem. I went there with my camera in October 2014 and again in 2016.
Even with less-than-optimal water resources, I found evidence of flora and fauna happily inhabiting the area.
However dry the Valley becomes over the course of the drought, we need not be fully discouraged by present appearances and circumstances. Though it would take an large and unknowable amount of water and time to restore the Valley’s resources and bring back an optimal climate, the ecosystem continues its seasonal cycles with what it is given. Photos I took at the Meadows Preserve in March of this year demonstrate that a little Spring rain can go a long way:
Also in March of this year I went to the Ventura River Preserve, where I found a myriad of colorful blooming growth and vibrant greenery:
The effects of the Southern California drought on the ecosystem and community of the Ojai Valley have become increasingly more visible since the State of Emergency was decreed in January of 2014. Indeed the drought was already underway long before that. Looking around at our habitat, it is impossible not to notice the depths of vertical striations which design the Lake’s edge; the exceptional dryness of the rehabilitated Meadows; the increase of the color brown in the palette painting the mountains; non-native Eucalyptus and native Oaks together struggling to persist. However, life and growth in the Valley continue on, natural cycles and patterns adjusting as needed for the evolution of the landscape . We must continue to look around us and be aware of the rapid and gradual changes which are underway and which will effect the future. As history rolls on unfolding moment by moment, we shall see–if we continue to look at what is, that is.
JUST BEFORE THE RAINS CAME this late October, I found myself completing a series of paintings I have been occupied with creating during the past three years. Joshua Tree 5, the life-size, 3-dimensional painting of a Yucca Brevifolia at its peak maturity, was completed on October 27, 2016, outside my studio in Ojai, California. This completion marks the end of a pursuit to artistically interpret and depict the growth cycle of the Joshua Tree, a unique and now threatened species native to the California desert. The painting’s completion occurred just in time to bring its 8′ x 6′ frame indoors (now crammed in the corner of the living room behind my pearlescent Gretsch drumset)–for as I write this, drought-stressed Southern California is receiving much needed rain from the heavens.
The California desert landscape is inevitably a part of my experiential DNA. From traversing its expanse via the 395 for my pilgrimage to the Eastern Sierras nearly every year of my life, it has been irrevocably integrated into my nervous system and genetic (un)conscious awareness. Through the window of a moving vehicle I would watch them come and go, their home an vast stage upon which a centuries-long dance has been choreographed, unfolding in slow-moving time. During my first visit to Joshua Tree, California on October 12 of 2013 for a High Desert Test Sites event, I was once again enamored with the plant, entranced by each individual’s charisma dancing in the slowest of movements, snowflakes taking decades to melt. Within my wanderings that day in October, I centered in on this specific individual, which formed the basic reference for Joshua Tree 5:
After returning from that brief journey into Joshua Tree turf, I devised the first rough schematics for the series in November of 2013:
In mid April of 2014, I returned to Joshua Tree, my blue 1990 Volvo packed with art supplies and a blank 6′ x ~4′ canvas. I then haphazardly drove down tributaries of random dirt (sand) roads, seeking the perfect Joshua Tree to enlist as my subject for the first of 8 painting endeavors. Somewhere, rooted out in the middle of nowhere, off the driven path somewhere near but out of sight of the Integratron, I found the one. I set up my station, and began capturing it. After hours of absorbing hot unforgiving sun, canvas absorbing paint, me absorbing Joshua Tree spirit via nervous system, I had enough absorbed to return to the studio and complete the painting.
It wasn’t until Spring of the subsequent year (after having moved back to Ojai after living in a strange, outsider place outside of Santa Clarita) that I was able to continue developing the series, on March 1st 2015 devising these schematics and estimates:
At some point soon after I amassed the materials necessary, and, with the gracious help and knowledge of my father, constructed 7 canvases in the raw with redwood 1″x2″s (a wood which could, like the Joshua Tree itself, become rarer as climate change continues), yards and yards of raw cotton canvas, a gallon of gesso, and dozens of staples. Indeed, making art from scratch is an alchemical process of transmuting base materials into higher forms of existence and awareness.
Then on March 17th 2015, traveling in the family’s Lance c(r)amper with my father and 6 of the 7 blank canvases of varying but specific sizes (leaving behind the largest, for practical reasons), a large easel and the necessary art tools, I returned to the desert–this time to a closer and more familiar location: Red Rock Canyon State Park. I was pleased to find many a fine Joshua Tree specimens there to inform the rest of the series.
Although 3 years may seem like a stretched-out time-expanse within which to complete 8 paintings (granted, within that time span I worked on and completed many other works and several series, including the major Big Bugs), this amount of time constitutes perhaps 0.02% of the average lifespan of a Joshua Tree. According to the National Park Service, the average lifespan is estimated to be 150 years–but there are certainly individuals who are much older, reaching upwards of 300 years!
So (alas) I am but a short-lived small-fry in the shadow of this magnificent species, individuals of which were born before me and will (hopefully) continue after I am gone!
Well, perhaps my smallness isn’t that sad–but what is unnerving is the growing fragility of these natives within their habitat, Yucca Brevifolia now being classified as a threatened species (U.S. Forest Service). This is due to factors ranging from deliberate human destruction (i.e. the removal of over 200,000 trees in the 1980’s for development), to unavoidable climate change (currently the drought being the most significant offender). According to recent investigations into their well-being, “Many Joshua trees in the region have not reproduced in decades. If warmer, drier conditions continue, scientific modeling suggests the symbols of California’s deserts will lose 90% of their range in the 800,000-acre park and surrounding terrain by the end of the century” (Los Angeles Times). As with many other desert creatures, their specific environmental needs, slow growing patterns, and particular lifecylce inhibit their ability to adapt quickly to change. Though it has existed since the era when gigantic sloths roamed the earth (Wikipedia), its continuation as a species on Earth is currently at stake given the current circumstances. I wonder if the Prophet Joshua, whom the pioneering Mormons named the plant after (Desert USA), could have prophesied this fate, its home a Promised Land of its own.
Three years ago, when the initial spark of inspiration was ignited and I began The Joshua Tree Lifecycle, I was not aware–nor was it within the awareness of the general public–that the fate of Yucca Brevifolia is at stake. At the time, I sensed the Joshua Tree to be an iconic, completely unique and unrepeatable entity, the beauty of which merits attention, appreciation, awareness, and ultimately conservation. It has been just within the past year, during the bulk of my work on the series, that the Joshua Tree was brought under the umbrella of the Endangered Species Act. I hope my artistic efforts will be a vehicle for increased awareness and appreciation of their enigmatic beauty as an irreplaceable icon of the Southern California desert.
Before and after it all, there is the inevitable reality of timelessness: of fractal movements which spiral up and out but which always double back on themselves, as demonstrated by this Polaroid, taken at an indefinable time:
See the complete series on my website here