The Burning Shore, no. 6
This comment has little to do with FireDoctor which was a delight to read as someone who grew up traipsing the hills above Redwood City and then Los Altos and has trekked through every California terrain from Fresno to Arcata. Also really enjoyed Ishi's cave whose biography weirdly showed up again the next day in an audiobook called An Indigenous Peoples History of the United States.
2 questions: 1) Where, when or what exactly is the subscribers only material?
2)Will you still be writing about Gravity's Rainbow as you mentioned a few times?
Hi Joseph. 1) The subscriber-only content refers to paid subscribers. Its an annoyance of language, since if you just have the free subscription you are also...a subscriber. If you paid for a sub—thanks!—you should have received a post with a link to an audio recording of "Fire Doctor." More audio recordings will be spilling out over the months.
2) One of today's tasks is to transform all the passages marked by the dozens of multi-colored note flags in my Viking edition into digital text, so that I can start working towards a piece. I have half a dozen little pieces cooking now, and it's never clear which one will rise to the top.
Thanks for asking!
Every one of these Burning Shore dispatches have really been a treat for myself as a newcomer to to California. Thank you so much for putting these together! They always push me to reflect on what actually brought me to this state, and keeps me here. This one especially resonated: a couple weeks ago, feeling inspired by your own explorations, I had my first encounter with poison oak. I wanted to share a couple of my thoughts on my experience and how it reflected from your writing, and it exploded into the paragraphs you see below. I know that posts on comment threads are not usually this long, so I apologize for hijacking this comment thread, and won’t be offended if no one has anything to say about this. I just felt like I had to put it out there!
Mid-June, after hearing Erik Davis talk about his own experiences with a forgotten favorite activity of mine, wandering the city by foot. After almost three months of mostly staying locked up at home, I thought I could use some of that back in my life. I was dropping my wife off at her friend's on the east side of LA when her friend suggested that if I was looking to get a little lost, I need not look any further than Debs Park, and that’s what I did.
This side of town has a bit more of a Latino influence. It transports me back to the South and Central American cities I grew up in at the same time that it reminds me that I am no longer there. I walked by and spent some time admiring the activist art hanging over a couple highway overpasses, reflecting the political atmosphere from another angle. I had always seen these from street level, but like most of this city, I had not experienced these spaces as a pedestrian. I was moved by a tearing eye with the words “no más policia” below, wildly flapping in the wind. To contrast that, I found signs peppered on the grassy areas commanding “no fútbol” as if I had found myself in a South American adaptation of Footloose. The way culture clashed in the signage just seemed to evoke something about what makes this city tick and why a foreigner such as myself feels so at home in this chaos.
Getting to the trails, I weaved past fellow hikers, my mask-on-mask-off game in disarray, before hitting a secluded trail bending around the back of the park. I remembered that that’s what I was looking for: to clear my field of view of manufactured objects. The trail went around the back of a couple buildings and then narrowed down. Sweet. The weeds are growing into the dirt path. No one goes here. I kept walking deeper into the wilderness, further from the buildings I was circling. Past them, I found a memorial bench tucked just off the path, dedicated to USC educator Judy Grayson.
I hoped that this bench was the key to finding a rabbit hole of local history and lore that would bring me great insight; “Erik Davis would be proud!” However, a quick Google search of Ms. Grayson didn’t bring up anything remarkable. It was good enough to be sitting on a funky bench, isolated from modernity, for a moment. Thanks, Judy.
In my experience, the idea of plant companions seem to be a rite of passage for stoners with any sort of spiritual ambitions. I’m definitely no different. The companion metaphor has been helpful in navigating my always changing relationship with Cannabis. I view it as a friendship that needs to be tended to and maintained, and most importantly, balanced with our other relationships. This felt like the right time to invite her on my solo trip.
Our growing party went deeper. On my casual glance at a map, it looked like if I just pushed all the way through this trail, I would end back out on the main area with the hikers, joggers, and dog walkers. With that plant consciousness now starting to buzz through my awareness, it felt easy to expand it into the other roots and stems erupting around me. I had been going on dog walks, but this was the first time in months I actually removed myself completely from the tedious grey landscapes that surround me. This was exactly what I needed.
With the smells, the colors, the sounds of skittering lizards all entangling themselves in my awareness, this trail was mine to blissfully float through. Then I hit a fork in the road. There was a sign: “access forbidden”, but it had been knocked down. There was no way to tell which way was accessible, but no problem, let my new plant friends show me the way!
I trudged on. The bushes and weeds grew taller, and the dirt more narrow, but I didn’t feel threatened. It was so inviting! If I just kept going, I thought, I’d emerge on the other side with some special morsel of understanding only possible if I committed to the full route. Then I started feeling some prickly itchiness in my ankle. It was time to knock the euphoria down and take in my actual surroundings. Ahead of me, the plant life towered over my body. I took a closer look to my sides where I found menacing thorns staring back at me. The thorn bushes were thicker and more threatening up ahead. I turn around, “how did I walk through that?” It was just as bad. It wasn’t worth continuing, that inviting energy had just morphed into threat. I heard the message loud and clear and started walking back, my awareness now centered on keeping my footing careful and my body narrow.
The itching was starting to spread, and that is when I saw ANOTHER sign, knocked over face down on the dirt: “CAUTION: Poison Oak ahead”. I didn’t know much about it, but knew enough to know that I definitely want to avoid it and getting it is no fun at all.
Shit. I zipped back out the rest of the way, the lizards scurrying as I balanced speed with trying to keep my legs and feet from rubbing up against anything. “Whatever you do, don’t scratch!”. The grey reality of June 2020 in LA re-emerged and I left the park without fully completing my quest. I rushed home to wash myself and dump my possibly toxic wardrobe. Fortunately, the itching subsided and the little red bumps went away within an hour.
I thought of that little adventure as somewhat of a disappointment until reading this Burning Shore post. How you described the Oak as a protector of this land really struck a chord. If “the fierce guardian teaches humility”, I heard that message loud and clear that day. I have to admit that until I read this, I also thought the Poison Oak were the tall thorny shrubs I was surrounded by, but thinking back, I did take notice of the weaving vines that were taking over the further in I went. I remember having the fleeting thought of seeing those vines as veins in the body of that environment. I think the metaphor is even more fitting knowing how ubiquitous this plant is to California. This land imposes its identity by the ways it is hostile to its human inhabitants. It’s a weird tough love that I can’t help but be drawn to!
I also have to mention that what you had to say about the weirdness of skin rashes and reactions is something I have definitely experienced, but never saw articulated this way. I remember in my teens, as I started dabbling in esoterica, getting a breakout of long, itchy rashes my family doctor could not explain. The rashes would grow into itchy bumps, with intersecting lines which eventually led to me identifying a rune as well as a cabalistic symbol raised on my skin. I had not consciously known these symbols before I saw them on my body. I still don’t have a rational explanation for that one other than dumb coincidence and my recent introduction into magical thinking at the time leading to some confirmation bias. Now I can call it an id reaction! Also, if I haven’t gotten too wooey yet, I'm also reminded of the fact that the skin is technically our largest organ, and that I've heard some explain it as blurry line between our sense of self and objective reality. Although the skin might look like a solid shield to separate ourselves from the rest of reality, it does happen to be a porous surface, constantly negotiating the within with the without. I’m sure I’m not the only one that sees my skin as my most banal of organs, all out in the open, no occult secrets to be gleaned. The poison oak, and your writing, however, has reminded me to cherish this weird flesh wrapper and its mysteries!
Thanks for the great read Erik. Although I've never knowingly encountered the poison oak, here in Australia we have the "giant stinging tree" (dendrocnide excelsa) that has similar formidable defenses. I have experienced the sensation of stinging by just being in its presence - some sort of psychosomatic response I guess, but it speaks to me about the ancient and complex link between human consciousness and compounds elaborated by plants.
Erik: A full-on California dude like yourself is probably already hip to the San Francisco-by way of-Chico band, the Mother Hips--the purveyors of the finest California Soul since '91 or so. Here is their ode to the plant--a song that is always powerful live: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XdhqOyq42fQ
That’s some learning from a rough teacher! Rather you than me for sure. Leaving poison oak behind by moving north beyond its range was my form of learning what I really needed to know from it. It’s one of those things I never, ever want to repeat.
Wow. What a fascinating piece, Erik. And there are some great, evocative sentences and paragraphs here. The description of the attack of the poison on the body, for instance.