Geographies of Violence in Southern California

Photo Source IvyMike | CC BY 2.0

The Arroyo Conejo winds through what once were oak meadows in the Conejo Valley. The area is now home to the Los Angeles exurbs of Thousand Oaks, Newbury Park, Westlake Village, Agoura Hills and Oak Park. It was here, before contact, that the Chumash people relied on acorns as their staple food and traded their flour for seafood from coastal villages along the Pacific coast some twenty miles to the west. William Bryant Logan in Oak, the Frame of Civilization, 2005, notes that “early European travelers came to recognize how close they were to an Indian village by the boom and thump of women driving pestles into mortars to grind acorns into meal”.  That sound had hung in the Conejo Valley for at least two millennia.

On Wednesday evening, November 7th, the only boom and thump to be heard along Rolling Oaks Drive in Thousand Oaks was coming from the Borderline Bar and Grill where country music echoed into the night. A little before midnight that sound was punctuated by the dull thuds of a Glock 21 handgun being fired in a mass shooting that killed twelve. The shooter, a former Marine, concluded the massacre by turning the gun on himself.

Early in the afternoon the next day, a wildfire started somewhere on the 2,668 acre Santa Susana Field Laboratory. Up until 2006 this facility had been used to test nuclear reactors and rocket engines for over fifty years. It was here that Rocketdyne developed and tested the engines that powered the space shuttle. In an un-used corner of the vast site sits Burro Flats painted cave, a Chumash solstice observation rock formation where members of the community’s priestly caste, the ’Antap, confirmed the return of the sun for another year. It is here too, in the surrounding Simi Hills, that winter rains run to the Arroyo Conejo, to form a part of the Calleguas watershed.

The fire would spread quickly, propelled by forty mile an hour Santa Ana winds, and like the creek, eventually find its way through the Santa Monica Mountains to the coast. Named the Woolsey fire, for a canyon close to its origin, it has now burnt almost 100,000 acres, destroyed five hundred structures and killed three.

On Friday morning, believing the fire barely west of U.S. Route 101, which runs the length of the state and follows El Camino Real for much of its length, and unaware that at seven a.m. Malibu had declared a compulsory evacuation order, my wife and I, guided by Google Maps, chose to take the Pacific Coast Highway to LAX. We moved swiftly across the alluvial plains of Oxnard, some of the richest agricultural lands in the country, and across the Calleguas Creek that filters its waters through Mugu Lake and its bordering wetlands along the beach. Then, in the usual abrupt fashion, we arrived at the northernmost outcropping of the Santa Monica Mountains, manifested (in my imagination) as a dragon’s tail plunging precipitously into the Pacific Ocean. In 1926, this rocky bastion was broached by dynamite, pick, shovel and the unremitting labor of newly arrived immigrants to allow a two-lane track to pass through what is now known as Point Mugu. A remnant of this severed spine remains as a sentinel rock at the Point.

Approaching Point Mugu, we had driven past the Seabees shooting range on the right and the trail head of the Chumash trading route on the left (which passes over Boney Mountain and then is buried beneath asphalt and concrete before reappearing in the Conejo Valley). Four years ago, after the first winter rains following the Springs Fire of 2013, which began, like the Woolsey, just east of Route101 and like it, burnt through the mountains to the beach,  I had followed the trail through a mostly monochrome landscape (the creek bottom and the puffs of new oak growth the only green) and noticed, on the blackened earth amidst the white ash of burnt shrubs, other more intense dots of white. Looking closer, I realized that I was walking through a collection of shell middens – where mussel, barnacle, sea-snail and clam shells had been exposed by the fire. These were the leavings from some Chumash meal in the Mission period, and below them no doubt, was buried the detritus from countless sea-food dinners consumed over many thousands of years. This ancient landscape of coastal sage scrub, chaparral, and riparian oak meadowlands, twice burnt in the span of five years, will likely only grow back as botanically impoverished, weedy grasslands, in a process known as type-conversion; its discarded shells left exposed in fields of non-native oats, mustard and star-thistles.

The sky was already dark with smoke, the ocean ruffled by off-shore Santa Ana winds, its waves flattened. Once beyond the portal, the road clings to the edge of the flanking mountain to the east and is supported by a rocky cliff to the west that falls into the roiling waters of the Pacific. By now, the curtain of smoke had fully descended except at its very edges far to the west where an orange glow of daylight peaked between the ocean and the billowing pyro-cumuli.

When we reached Zuma, one of Malibu’s northernmost beaches, traffic ground to a halt as the city’s residents heeded the evacuation call and headed in their SUV’s, Priuses, Teslas, Bentley’s, and one conspicuously new Rolls Royce, south on the PCH.For five hours we crawled along the picturesque highway as volcanic clouds, and the occasional line of ridge top fire, loomed to our left and the curiously placid smoke-dark sea lay to our right. We listened to AM radio predicting the fire’s imminent and inevitable arrival at the coast while we inched our way towards Santa Monica and an awakening from the nightmare of our almost stalled cars being engulfed in flame.

We arrived at the airport seven hours after leaving our home (usually an easy two-hour drive) and long after our flight to Vancouver had departed. Having failed to secure later stand-by seats, we stayed overnight with friends in Venice who were harboring a fire-refugee from Topanga, a threatened rural suburb just south of Malibu, and who themselves were mourning the loss of another friend’s house in Malibu Lake.

Our harrowing experience was a very minor note in a major state-wide catastrophe that included the Camp Fire in Butte County east of Chico, which started on Wednesday November 7th, far larger and much deadlier than the Woolsey fire, but entirely lacking in the latter’s celebrity frisson.

The carbon sequestered in over a quarter million acres of trees and shrubs and within the building materials of many thousands of structures has now been released to the atmosphere in these hellacious wildfires spread across California. In a state that has seen most of its historic old growth forests logged into extinction, its fossil biomass extracted from the earth for well over a century, where its gasoline burning automobiles clog its cities and highways and its industrial and domestic energy needs are largely supplied by the burning of natural gas, its wildfires count as the reciprocal in a cycle of violence.

The wildlands of California have long been coopted by civilization as either ‘Lands of Many Uses’, the motto of the USDA Forest Service, or as a mythological counterpoint to human agency. They are perceived as an ancient backdrop to the miraculous achievements of a humanly engineered modernity which, in turn, has undertaken their systematic violation. Through the karmic medium of global warming, the victim is now wreaking its revenge.

Characterized by the enduring marks of Chumash inhabitation, the landscape between Conejo Valley and the Pacific coast, reaching south to the long spit of Malibu, now experiences, it seems, recurring fires that are fueled by drought stricken vegetation and driven by powerful winds that funnel down the canyons, defiles and valleys of the Santa Monica Mountains – carved over millennia by their rivers and creeks.

The anger-stoked shooting rampage in Thousand Oaks during the Santa Anas recalls Raymond Chandler’s note of caution that when these winds blow, “Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.” This is but a picayune meteorological fancy. All across the nation, American violence cleared the way west and we are now haunted by these fitful, generational, reenactments of the carnage. This time, in this place, it was the act of a young man likely innocent of our history, but, as a Marine, deeply inculcated in the Empire’s killing machine. We are all complicit by the fact of our living on lands stolen over a century or more of a rolling genocide and of contributing to the culture of war by paying our taxes. Perhaps more perniciously, we are also complicit in creating the circumstances of global warming by way of our egregious habits of consumption.

Following this second week of November in Southern California, amidst these entwined geographies of violence, can we hope that we are newly alerted to this complicity?

John Davis is an architect living in southern California. Read more of his writing at