This journal focuses on the art, history, culture, and wildlands of the northern Big Sur coast. Periodic entries and documents appear at random here.



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Wilderness creates community — it doesn't threaten it

Successful backfire along the Mescal Ridge firebreak during the Basin Complex Fire in 2008.There are good fights and bad fights. And it isn't even a matter of always having to play nice. But a basic, even if begrudging, respect is required — and a willingness to really listen instead of simply shutting down.

I recently heard the management of a sports team described as a "team of rivals." At one moment everything might look like it will fall apart in a tension of strong wills. And then the next moment some subtle shift, or even a spectacular breathrough, might have just occurred that no one could see coming.

Mid-Coast Fire Brigade captain Cheryl Goetz leading a fire meeting in Palo Colorado during the Basin Complex Fire.I also heard someone once ask Wendell Berry...

"But aren't there too many people in the world?"

"There aren't too many smart people," he answered.

Sometimes you just can't have too many bright and energetic people in a room.

Aftermath of backfire and Basin Complex Fire looking eastward from Skinner Ridge.On the other hand, if when you fight, you just want to make sure you leave enough sharp broken edges lying around on the kitchen floor afterward...

...consider holding a public discussion on wilderness in Big Sur.

Upper Rocky Creek residents doing fire clearance along the Rocky Creek road.With understandably heightened anxiety about wildfire in the aftermath of the Basin Complex Fire, it becomes easy to project a false dichotomy between wilderness and community, as if the two values really were opposed.

But here in Big Sur, wilderness in all its forms, including wildfire (with whom we must be ongoingly mindful, respectful, and far-thinking), doesn't threaten community.

It creates it.

The Overstrom homestead "Alta Vista," Jeff Norman's home on Michael Ridge. And that's the beautiful shepherd Shay in the gloaming light on the hillside. Photo courtesy of Boon Hughey.We should do what we can to reduce the suffering that comes with the loss of homes — and especially with the loss of life itself.

Alta Vista, July 8, 2008, "Still Smoldering" from the Basin Complex Fire. Photo courtesy of Xasáuan Today.(For a particularly beautiful reminiscence of a much-loved "Historic Big Sur Homestead Lost in the Basin Complex Fire," see Xasáuan Today's "Remembering Alta Vista," and Part 2 of that reminiscence, "More Alta Vista Memories.")

Trail sign attributed to Steve Chambers.But at the same time, if we lose the wildness of this coast, we will have lost everything. We will have lost the very nature of what it means to be here in the first place.


Rancho San José y Sur Chiquito

Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, BerkeleyThe earliest map we know for our stretch of coast is the diseño of Rancho San José y Sur Chiquito above. A diseño is a hand-drawn descriptive map that was submitted in an application for a Mexican land grant. Rancho San José y Sur Chiquito was first granted to Teodoro Gonzales in 1835 and then regranted to Marcelino Escobar in 1839. Legend says that it was later lost in a card game to eight soldiers from the Monterey presidio.

Rancho San José y Sur Chiquito takes its name from two creeks: San José Creek and El Río Chiquito del Sur — the Little Sur River. But as you can see above, the diseño seems to map the Rancho as extending from the lower reaches of the Carmel River to Palo Colorado Canyon. 

If you click on either of these images, it's fun to zoom and scroll around and come upon many familiar names and places.

Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, BerkeleyFor instance, in this detail from one of the diseños, Palo Colorado Canyon is clearly marked. In fact, if we ever need a logo for our community, we might consider that cool hand-sketched redwood tree above.



Debi's just posted a terrific new blog on her horseback photography trip in Montana. "The Wild West — Part 1" is over on our Red Egg Journal.


A young Sarhentaruc mother and her daughter walk up the coast

Drawing of Mission San Carlos de Borroméo de Carmelo by José Cardero of the Malaspina expedition in 1791.The first baptisms at Mission San Carlos de Borroméo de Carmelo came from the rancherias nearest the mission — first Achasta and Tucutnut, and then Echilat, Socorronda, and Ichxenta. Achasta was in the immediate vicinity of the mission, and Tucutnut a couple miles up Carmel Valley.

But in the summer of 1776, a young mother from Sarhentaruc appeared at the mission with her four year old daughter, and both were baptized. The previous journal refers to this mother and daughter, too — and to the location of "Pitchi in the place called Sargenta Ruc."

(Since the padres typically only recorded the native names of particularly prominent individuals, like the capitans or head-men of villages, in the majority of cases, we can only identify individuals in the mission records by their given Spanish baptismal names.)

For instance, the four year old girl who was the first person ever baptized from Sargenta Ruc was christened Maria Nicolasa. She is described as "huerfana de Padre," that is, orphaned, or left unprotected, by her father. In Indians and Pioneers of Old Monterey, James Culleton refers to the girl's mother, christened Maria Josepha de la Asumpcion, as a "grass widow." This would mean that her husband hadn't died, but had left her or set her aside.

Does this explain why Maria Josepha de la Asumpcion would make the journey to the mission with her young daughter? Had she been ostracized or shamed? Did she feel there was no longer enough support for her in Sarhentaruc?

Likely, she knew friends or relatives from rancherias to the north who were already associated with the mission — people from Ichxenta or Echilat or Tucutnut.

Her daughter, Maria Nicolasa, was baptized on June 23, 1776. Seven weeks later on August 15, Maria Josepha de la Asumpcion was baptized herself. The difference in baptismal dates can be explained by the fact that as an adult Maria Josepha de la Asumpcion would have needed to receive "instruction in the faith."

Curiously, only five days after her baptism, Maria Josepha de la Asumpcion was married to a widower from Tucutnut, Estevan Joseph Malaret.

Did the two know one another before Maria Josepha de la Asumpcion arrived at the mission? Or was theirs a hastily arranged marriage — part of the conscious attempt to keep unmarried women away from sexual encounters?

By the time Maria Josepha and her daughter had arrived at the mission from Sargenta Ruc, virtually all of Tucutnut had already been missionized. Seventy-eight people from Tucutnut had been baptized in 1773 alone, the year Estevan Joseph and his first wife, Raymunda Maria, were baptized, too, and then another thirty-eight were baptized in 1774, indicating the wholesale integration of Tucutnut into the mission system. Estevan Joseph and Raymunda were 35 and 40 years old at the time of their baptisms, and I haven't seen any mission records indicating they had children. They were already a married couple in Tucutnut before their baptisms, and their marriage record at Carmel indicates that their marriage at the mission "renewed" that earlier bond.

But Raymunda Maria died suddenly in July 1775 — the year before Maria Josepha de la Asumpcion appeared and Estevan Joseph remarried.

During these earliest years, not many neophytes lived at the mission itself. The mission wasn't yet prepared agriculturally and economically to support such a population — and the first neophytes came from nearby rancherias anyway. These rancherias quickly assumed Spanish names, likely indicating that they had been thoroughly christianized. For instance, Tucutnut soon began to be called "Santa Theresa, alias Tucutnut" in the Carmel mission records. Most likely, this is where Maria Josepha de la Asumpcion and Maria Nicolasa lived with Estevan Joseph because in her death record, Maria Josepha's place of origin is no longer given as "Pitchi in the place known as Sargenta Ruc," but rather as "Tucutnút. alias Santa Therez." 

Detail of José Cardero's drawing of Carmel mission in 1791.This would change, of course. For example, in this detail of José Cardero's drawing of the mission in 1791, you can recognize the tule houses of native people in the background. If you click on either this image or his full drawing further above, you can scroll and zoom into Cardero's drawing on your own.

Photo courtesy of Christopher Reynolds of the LA Times.

In less than four years, however, Maria Josepha, Maria Nicolasa, and Estevan Joseph would each die in rapid succession. Maria Josepha died in December 1779 at the age of 25. Her daughter Maria Nicolasa died three months later. She was 8. And Estevan Joseph died three months after the young girl — in May 1980.

By 1781 the padres at Carmel had baptized 625 native people — and they had buried 215 of them. When you consider that 376 of the 625 baptisms were infants or children 14 or younger, and that only 26 of the baptisms were adults over 40, the death rate becomes even more horrifying.

Whether you were a native person at the mission itself, or were still living in your own village after contact with the Spanish, you had no natural resistance to diseases like smallpox that the Spanish had brought with them.

Since she died in 1775, Raymunda Maria, Estevan Joseph's first wife, was buried in the earlier mission church. But the bodies of Maria Josepha de la Asumpcion, her daughter Maria Nicolasa, and Estevan Joseph are buried somewhere in the Carmel mission cemetery grounds.



Baptized native people also were given the surname of their padrino, or godfather. Thus, the husband's name above is Estevan Joseph Malaret since his padrino was Domingo Malaret, one of the company of Catalan volunteers in Monterey. Maria Josepha de la Asumpcion's godparents were Petra Ochoa and Augustin Valenzuela, the latter a soldier who had come in the De Anza expedition. Perhaps Petra Ochoa had come then, too.


The name "Sargenta Ruc" 

The earliest name we know for this stretch of coast comes from the baptismal records of Mission San Carlos de Borroméo de Carmelo.

 On June 23, 1776 in the mission church at Carmel, a girl about four, who was still nursing, was baptized. She came "from the rancheria called Sargenta Ruc about seven leagues from this mission toward the south-southeast. She is the first Christian from this populous rancheria" — and she was given the Spanish name Maria Nicolasa.

The Spaniards used the term "rancheria" in two senses. Sometimes they used it to refer to the population of a general area — what we might call a "district." At other times "rancheria" refers to a specific village-site.

Seven weeks later, on August 15, Maria Nicolasa's mother was also baptized. The delay between the two baptisms can be explained by the fact that as an adult the mother would need to have been given instruction in the faith before being baptized.

The mother, about twenty-two, is described as coming "from the rancheria Pitchi in the district ("el parage") called Sargenta Ruc." Since the mother and daughter were almost surely from the same place, we can put the two baptismal records together to assume that Pitchi was a village about seven leagues downcoast from the mission in the district of Sargenta Ruc.

But since the people of Sargenta Ruc were hunter-gatherers, in this case "village" doesn't refer to a permanent, year-long settlement, but rather to a central location where all or most of the people in the area would gather once or twice a year.

From the Carmel mission records, there seem to have been two main villages in Sargenta-Ruc — Pitchi (or Pis as the name is sometimes rendered), six or seven leagues south of the mission, and Jojopan (or Ojaba), eleven leagues south. Pitchi seems to have been near Notley's Landing at the mouth of Palo Colorado Canyon, and Jojopan at the mouth of the Big Sur River.

Since a league is 2.6 miles, you might think these distances don't quite measure out exactly to Palo Colorado Canyon and the Big Sur River, but if so, you might have highway odometer measurements in mind rather than the rough, winding in-and-out of canyons traveling that the Spanish would've known.

Besides, then as now, topographically these are the two natural locations where greater habitation density would occur.

In 1782 Fray Noriega, who signed his mission record entries "Fray Mathias Antonio de Santa Cathalina," traveled through Sargenta Ruc, and on November 20 he baptized a gravely ill woman "in the rancheria of Sargenta Ruc in a creek ("arroyo") of redwoods ("palos colorados") and bays ("laureles") about seven leagues along the coast to the southeast."

The woman, about forty, died later the same day. She had been given the Spanish name Feliciana.

In 1784 Fray Noriega returned to Sargenta Ruc, and this time, on Christmas Eve, he baptized another woman in danger of death, a young woman of eighteen who was one of the three wives of the headman ("Capitan") of Sargenta Ruc. She was baptized "about six leagues along the coast to the southeast in a small cañada ("cañadita") of redwoods ("palo colorado").

And now, in this baptismal entry 1038, we also read a native name — that the woman's husband, the unbaptized headman of Sargenta Ruc, is known as Chílichon.

Drawing of natives of Monterey by José Cardero of the Malaspina expedition in 1791

The point isn't to gather obscure data from Spanish mission records. The point is to re-learn what we can about the earliest names of this coast, and more importantly, to realize and respect the actuality of the first people here.

There are surprisingly vivid images that can still be gathered, and periodically this journal will dip into places like mission records to try to find them. But for now, we can remind ourselves of a couple of likely assumptions. First, that at the time of the Europeans' arrival in 1769, there was a district called Sarhentaruc that stretched along the coast from some undetermined point north of Palo Colorado Canyon to an undetermined point somewhere south of the mouth of the Big Sur River. Secondly, that the two most prominent settlement areas in Sarhentaruc were Pitchi (or "Pis"), most likely centered somewhere around Notley's Landing, and then Jojopan (or "Ojaba"), centered around the mouth of the Big Sur River.

That leaves many questions to pursue. Two immediate ones jump out. What language, or languages, did the people of Sarhentaruc speak? And how did they organize themselves, socially and politically?



This post relies on Randall Milliken's "Ethnogeography and Ethnohistory of the Big Sur District, California State Park System during the 1770-1810 Time Period," 1990.  It also relies on research through the microfilm of Carmel mission records at the LDS Family History Center in Seaside.


Looking for Al Clarke again...


Even in a mountainscape renowned for outlaws and eccentrics, Al Clarke has held his own ground well.

Jeff Norman and the Big Sur Historical Society, "Big Sur," p. 52

Doc Roberts (instrumental in the creation of Highway 1) had a cabin at the confluence of the north and south forks of the Little Sur River that he called Cyclone. He called Al Clarke "psychic" — based on Clarke's uncanny timing for emerging from the Little Sur trail just when Doc Roberts or the mail-wagon was going past.

The stone cistern at Al Clarke's homestead. Photo courtesy of Melissa Lofton.

Both Robinson Jeffers and Jaime de Angulo came upon Al Clarke this way. In the caption beside the photograph of Al Clarke above, Jeff Norman is referring to the trip that John Smeaton Chase made on horseback up the length of the California coast in 1911. During that trip Chase camped for a couple of nights at Idylwild on the Little Sur. On one of those days, he made a two-mile ramble up the Little Sur trail and happened upon Al Clarke at his homestead.

I won't repeat these accounts of Al Clarke for you — but they're well worth finding and reading on their own. I'll cite the references below.

Pahch-kah-la che-pil — the Rumsien name for the mountain also called Pico Blanco now. Photo courtesy of Melissa Lofton.

But it was only on his deathbed that Al Clarke spoke of his most important find.

One day when he was pickaxing in the shaft of his silver mine, suddenly the wall gave way, he said, and he stumbled into a huge chamber. "He crawled deeper into the mountain and found stalactites and stalagmites in one long cavern after another..." He came upon an underground river...and then "in the most wondrous chamber of all, the dry floor of which was filled with mortar holes, he found painted walls, with pictographs of 'elephants with long, shaggy hair and cats with long sharp teeth.'"

"The Panel of the Lions" at Chauvet Cave in the Ardeche region of FranceAl Clarke's story came back to me vividly two nights ago when I saw Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

I'm still spellbound by the film. Something more important went on — and is still going on — than can be explained by saying that the film takes you down into the landscape where these animal-spirits were painted onto limestone walls by greaselight and torchlight over 30,000 years ago.

"Fighting Rhinos and Four Horses" at Chauvet Cave in the Ardeche region of France.

Courtesy of Ruby Gear Woicekowski. Photo appears in Rosalind Sharpe Wall's "A Wild Coast and Lonely."It may seem impossible to credit Al Clarke's deathbed tale of stumbling into such caverns himself. He died c. 1936. The caves of Alta Mira had been discovered in 1879. He might have known of them. But Lascaux wasn't discovered until 1940 and Chauvet not until 1994.

After years of solitude behind Pico Blanco, he seemed at best eccentric. Roche Castro told Jaime de Angulo this...

"You see that man walking over the moor with that long stride? Must be Uncle Al — nobody else walks like that — best carpenter on the Coast with broad-ax and adze — but he is a lunatic of the first water — I'll tell you about him later."

Still, the limestone landscape of Chauvet is the limestone landscape of Pico Blanco, too — and here on its hidden side, winter rains fall into the porous limestone and leave no trace behind. The mountain is catacombed with caverns — no matter what you think might be found in them.

Look closely and you'll see in the southeast where a whole facet of the mountain has dropped away — and buried much that we no longer know in boulders and talus at its feet.



Though unnamed, Al Clarke can be recognized in a preface Robinson Jeffers wrote to Horace Lyons' Jeffers Country: The Seed Plots of Robinson Jeffers' Poetry. A shorter version of that preface also appears in Not Man Apart. Al Clarke also appears in Jaime de Angulo's account of first coming to this coast — published first under the title "La Costa del Sur" and more recently as "On First Seeing the Coast." John Smeaton Chase's encounter is described in chapter 16 of California Coast Trails: A Horseback Adventure from Mexico to Oregon.

John Woolfenden re-tells the story of Al Clarke's discovery of the caverns at Pico Blanco in Big Sur: A Battle for the Wilderness, 1869 - 1985 — and Rosalind Sharp Wall amplifies upon the lore of Al Clarke in A Wild Coast and Lonely.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams opened on May 6 in the San Francisco Bay Area. See it in 3-D, though. Because of how the Chauvet painters utilize the depth dimensions in the cave — and the texture and contours of the limestone — filming in 3-D is no gimmick here.

The Bradshaw Foundation has a good site for more information on Chauvet and on rock art around the world. And here is a link to a terrific NPR discussion of Chauvet with Werner Herzog, novelist Cormac McCarthy, and physicist Lawrence Krauss.