Published in Ecopsychology, Sept. 1 2009: 150-153
Oral traditions like those of Native Americans illustrate that storytellers are well suited for creating postmodern environmental ethics through what Jim Cheney (1995) calls “bioregional narrative”—contextualist discourse that serves an epistemological function akin to “mythic thinking.” Inspired by Cheney’s assessment, I set about applying “mythic thinking” to place—in this case, Silver Strand, a tiny southern California beach once inhabited by the Chumash, whose stories about their interactions with both land and sea demonstrate an inherent ethos that communicates moral behavior and values. In so doing, they provide a model for developing a personal sense of place from which nonindigenous inhabitants might learn.
keywords: mythology, ecopsychology, environmental ethics, Native American
Silver Strand in Oxnard, California, delivers on the promise of its name: a two-mile stretch of gleaming beach sandwiched between Port Hueneme Naval Base to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Here along the shoreline, brown pelicans may be observed coasting in formation inches above the water. Every so often these winged lords of the sky spy something tasty and dive head first, long bills vertical with the rest of their streamlined bodies, hardly breaking the water. When they catch some hapless creature in their enormous bills, they tilt their heads back and with a series of thrusting motions, maneuver the meal into the backs of their throats and down their gullets. The plenitude of these birds is a testament to the success of conservation programs—notably the banning of DDT—that have returned the once endangered species to the population numbers they enjoyed when Portuguese explorer Juan Cabrillo discovered California in 1542.
Cabrillo, of course, was not the first to inhabit California; for ten thousand years prior to his “discovery” many indigenous groups roamed the coasts, valleys, mountains, and off-shore islands that comprise this vastly diverse region. The Chumash were one such tribe who once populated Silver Strand and named the site hueneme, from which the Navy port derives its name. Meaning “resting place” or “halfway,” hueneme is equidistant between the tribe’s most southerly (Malibu) and northerly (Ventura) spheres. It is an apt moniker, for hueneme demarcates the magical, transitory space that mediates the land and sea: the shore.
These facts are among the many tidbits of interest I have gleaned since arriving here. The journey that brought me began at the end of 2004, when I sold my Central Coast California home of 17 years, sent the youngest two of my three sons off to college, and moved to Silver Strand, where I became immersed in the stories of the intertidal zone and all the characters and creatures who frequent it: Leviticus, One-Armed Walker, Shell Lady Donna, Cutthroat ’Comber, and Heart Hunter, to name a few.
Using Thoreau’s Walden and Rachel Carson’s The Edge of the Sea as inspiration, I set out to create a narrative of place about Silver Strand that might pick up where these seminal tomes left off, and in so doing, might model how others could experience place as mythopoietic, or mythmaking, in their own microlocalities. Although this thought did not occur until I had actually moved to Silver Strand, I believe a certain amount of what C. G. Jung called “synchronicity” was involved: Silver Strand is the part of the mainland coast that is closest to Santa Cruz Island, where my husband, Chuck, died in 1995. To be on the Strand is to be within constant sight of Santa Cruz and all the myriad images it conjures, a possibility I had not consciously considered prior to arriving.
There is more to Silver Strand, of course, than a view of Santa Cruz Island. The abundance of intertidal life provides constant entertainment. If the pelicans rule the sky here, the alpha-male gulls dominate the mudflats by their constant vying for territory, chasing away any juveniles or females that dare encroach with a raucous hiyah … hiyah … hiyah—always startling in its bravado and demanding tone. Dodging the gulls, willets and sanderlings scurry about, digging for mole crabs that burrow just under the sand. Willets attack the beach en masse or sometimes in pairs during low tide, using their bills like combination pitchfork-jackhammers as they scavenge. The sanderlings, however, utilize a different approach to crabbing than the willets: Rather than stabbing at the sand with bills open like two-pronged pitchforks, sanderlings keep their bills closed, using them like pokers. As each wave recedes, these tiny birds in the peep sub-family of sandpipers rush with it, jabbing furiously in the ebb, only to be chased farther back by the next flow as if dancing to some choreography known only to them.
Shorebirds aren’t the only ones poking the sand and scavenging for seafood at low tide; Silver Strand is famed for its humungous Pismo clams and has long attracted those hardy enough to pull on hip waders or even wet suits to brave the icy Pacific waters. These beachcombers clam in the most inhospitable of conditions, prodding and probing in their black rubber hip waders. As I once watched a particular group of scroungers, from behind me I heard the cursing of an enraged local. I had seen this man before, oftentimes patrolling the beach with a large white cockatoo he called Leviticus on his head. The scruffy pirate-environmentalist, whom I had dubbed One-Armed Walker because of his missing appendage, had taken it upon himself to fight for the rights of those clams unable to speak up for themselves.
“Get ’em all, ya dirty dogs! Eat ’em all up, ya filthy pigs!” yelled the black-bearded Silver Strander while flailing his arm at the diggers, Leviticus clutching his master’s dreds to maintain his balance. “Yeah, get every last one … you [bleep]in’ scavengers! Who cares about the clams?” The diggers, however, appeared impervious to the local’s fury. Or, perhaps, they couldn’t hear his rants over the crashing surf. The underlying conflict of this scene brought to mind the alpha gulls screeching in vain at their perceived competitors, serving to delineate an essential paradox of the shore, a place where all is in flux, as W. F. H. Nicolaisen says:
[T]he beach becomes the seam between land and sea and a metaphor for the border between the known and familiar, the firm land, on the one hand, and the threatening or at least unpredictable, the infirm sea, on the other. It is a place of ambiguities [where] less peaceful encounters with the supernatural are a constant threat. (1991, p. 8)
The Chumash recognized these ambiguities in their rich mythology that includes stories about the ˀelyeˀwun, supernatural beings of the middle world, personified as swordfish who live in a crystal house under the sea. In “The Sea People,” these theriomorphs are described as bachelors: “men [who] have no wives or children,” according to Thomas C. Blackburn (1975, p. 94). Like the underworld demons called nunašɨš, ˀelyeˀwun tend “to be malevolent by nature, even though they benefit the Chumash by driving whales ashore for people to eat” (p. 37). In combining malice and beneficence, the ˀelyeˀwun embody archetypal paradox.
As in much mythology, such ambiguity abounds in Chumash stories; for it is within the attempted resolution of paradoxical figures and motifs that psychic transformation becomes possible. Moreover, by personifying animal, plant, and inorganic worlds, the Chumash, as with many indigenous cultures, demonstrate the inspiriting of their cosmos. For the Chumash, Blackburn says, “no real dichotomy separates [humans] from [their] environment, or distinguishes [hu]man from beast, for transformation renders each potentially equivalent to the other. The ecological and philosophical implications of such an ideological structure are of considerable interest” in that they support the notion of an embedded environmental ethic in Chumash oral tradition (1975, p. 41). This ethos is communicated through narratives which instill the concept that “the world is God” (p. 102).
What better place is there, then, to experience this pantheistic notion of oneness-with-the-universe than on a beach? Jerry R. Wright posits the seashore as a “thin place … where the visible and invisible tumble into each other and where a visitor from the otherworld may appear at any ordinary place or moment” (2008, p. 3-4). As such, thin places provide access to the unseen underworld and facilitate transformation by mediating “between conscious and unconscious, thereby honoring the seamless connection between matter and spirit”—a process not unlike that of Jungian analysis (2008, p. 4). This attitude toward their environment allowed the Chumash to feel a special connection to “places and conditions that were ‘betwixt and between,’ such as twilight, dawn and dusk, mist, fogs and bogs [that were] marked by ambiguity, paradox, or fluidity’ (2008, p. 7). Thus, it comes as no surprise that the ˀelyeˀwun are thin-place dwellers.
Are they the ˀelyeˀwun I hear as I stroll along the shore during a negative low tide that exposes pebbly piles called “debris fields” by Shell Lady Donna? What do they say? Come look, come see, come collect me … Are there gems hidden among the stony tines that comb the water, catching its detritus and tumbling randomly against the tidal mudflat as if in hydromantic design, changing each moment as the creeping surge rolls the pebbles, tossing them into new poses as they clack rhythmically to rest while awaiting the next flow? As Jung observes: “The sea is like music; it has all the dreams of the soul within itself and sounds them over” (2002, p. 40). Could I be hearing the ancient Chumash rattles called cˀiwis—bone wands with dangling crystals—that they used in their ritual swordfish dance? Are the rocks alerting me to the possibility of gathering them? Come look, come see, come collect me, they seem to chant.
When I’m on the strand, time suddenly slows as the transitoriness of life materializes. I can be looking out to sea with nary a cloud visible, glance down at an enticing debris field, become engaged in the meditation that is beachcombing, look up and note Fog’s coming in, look again, and it’s enveloped me: I’m he-e-e-r-r-e, Fog announces. In this marginal threshold of the shore I become aware of the past and of the continuing flow of time, of the land and sea’s interchangeability.
Time takes on a different meaning at the tide line where, as Carson says in The Edge of the Sea, “we enter a world that is as old as the earth itself—the primeval meeting place of earth and water, a place of compromise and conflict and eternal change” (1998, p. xiii). “For no two successive days is the shore line precisely the same. … Only the most hardy and adaptable can survive in a region so mutable” (1998, p. 1). Here one may encounter “the poignant beauty of things that are ephemeral” (1998, p. 1). I, like the Chumash before me, become aware that “time and space are relative matters [;] the present is linked with past and future, and each living thing with all that surrounds it” (pp. 7, 37).
Yet, not only the “living” things are interconnected: Rocks tell stories of past and future as well. Perhaps rocks are alive; for to hold in one’s hand something that is millions, even billions of years old boggles the mind and renders sense of time as meaningless. This might explain the Chumash word timoloqinaš, which means both “true story” and “history” (Blackburn, 1975, p. 24). Timoloqinaš has no equivalent in English, for it is a notion that melds past, present, and future. It is mythic time—what Mircea Eliade calls in illo tempore (1987). Many Chumash stories begin with “‘it is a timoloqinaš’” (Blackburn, 1975, p. 24).
In focusing upon the ways in which the concept of timoloqinaš and the myths themselves inspirit the environment, my attention is drawn to how place is ensouled in the Chumash worldview. Their narratives contain countless references to actual villages, mountains, and landmarks, some of which—e.g. the south-central California town of Huasna (wasna)—retain their native monikers to this day, as noted above in the name hueneme. Place-naming is especially apparent in stories about šimilaqša, the destination of the soul after first being purified at Point Conception (humqaq), the farthest western site in California (Blackburn 1975, 99). Toponymic narratives such as these demonstrate the intimate relationship between environment and individual and the importance of location to a culture, which helps to instill a strong sense of place.
Such sense of place, I believe, may be likened to the experience of anima mundi, or world soul—a revelation of the inspirited world that is soul-making. By bestowing the pebbles and seashells with voices and song, I personify them, allowing me to identify with a sense of their place. I recognize that a “mollusc [sic] on the shore is Aphrodite,” as James Hillman says (1979b, p. xxiii). Thus, when I stroll down Silver Strand at low tide, picking through Aphrodite’s detritus until something catches my eye, asking me to pick it up, which I do, to discover a Moon Snail shell, I am communing with Aphrodite; when I make a necklace with this spiral orb I am remembering Aphrodite and the Chumash shamans who created ˀatišwɨn (talismans) with crystals and shells. I am reconnecting with place and ensouling us both.
“The power of place,” says Hillman, is “as a determining fantasy in thought and action [which] makes place an axiomatic foundation in archetypal psychology” (1983, p. 76). Such fantasies become absorbed into the unconscious to resurface as dream images, which, because they satisfy our instincts, “will in themselves alter the way we live” (Hillman, 1979a, p. 123). Thus do our dreams formulate our creative fantasies, which in turn provide the sources for mythic images which emerge in narratives that are integral in any transformational process because they “articulate … moral imperatives [that] do instruct; they locate us in a moral space which is at the same time the space we live in physically,” according to Jim Cheney (1995, p. 33-34, ital. in orig.).
Oral traditions like those of the Chumash therefore illustrate that storytellers are well suited for creating postmodern environmental ethics through what Cheney (1995) calls “bioregional narrative”—contextualist discourse that serves an epistemological function akin to “mythic thinking” (p. 28). Like the ancient myths that communicated moral behavior and values through narrative, environmental ethics will be most effective when the symbolic, non-rational language of poetry is returned to philosophy, and mythology is restored to its archaic function of providing meaning. We need a postmodern Momoy, who functioned like Artemis for the Chumash, to remind us that all behavior has consequences. “Narrative,” says Cheney, “is the key, then, but it is narrative grounded in geography rather than in a linear, essentialized, narrative self” (1995, p. 31). In other words, we need a storytelling style of contextualized discourse that allows placing ourselves while minimizing our personal agendas. When I locate myself in a specific place like Silver Strand, my position becomes grounded; self and geography unite in the “moral space” of defining relations which serve to create a contextualized discourse of place, or what Cheney calls “bioregional narrative” (1995, p. 34).
Clearly, then, it is language, whose birth paradoxically coincides with humankind’s original separation from nature, which will be our hope for reconnecting to it and altering the destructive course we are on. For it is through language that the mythic images of dreams may be expressed in a cohesive story that geographical location alone cannot accomplish. Silver Strand has endured the desecration wrought by human population pressures yet continues to retain its magic and meaning, if only in the imagination of its inhabitants who experience unity with anima mundi. Chumash mythopoiesis thus makes apparent that bioregional narratives do inhere an environmental ethos which resides not solely in the natural facts and socio-political institutions of a place but within the imaginal realm whence new myths may originate and be dreamt onwards.
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