Sunday, July 28, 2013

California Research Adventure: Day 26

Day 26: Ventura County & Channel Islands

Well, this, at the midpoint of my California adventure, was surely the highlight of my trip. Ventura is a beautiful, coastal town north of Los Angeles, and the Channel Islands just took my breath away. What a day!

The Channel Islands, view from a ship

My journey began early in the morning. I woke up at 5:45 A.M., grabbed breakfast at my hotel and hit the road a little after 6:15 A.M. I walked to my local Metro stop and boarded a train to downtown L.A. I arrived at Los Angeles Union Station around 7:20 A.M. From there I boarded an Amtrak train northbound along the Pacific coast to Ventura County.

A little after 9:30 A.M. we pulled into Ventura station. I say Ventura, but the historic name of this town is San Buenaventura; at some point they shortened it to Ventura...although City Hall still has the name Buenaventura emblazoned upon the building's facade.

My first stop was just a few blocks north of the train station, which itself is just a few blocks north of the coast. I visited the Mission San Buenaventura, one of the oldest Catholic missions in all of California.

The Mission San Buenaventura, established in 1782

Surprisingly, given how important the missions are to California history, I believe this was the first time I had visited a Spanish mission in California. It may also be the oldest building that I have visited in California (as you'll remember from earlier in my trip that the buildings I visited in downtown L.A. date only to the 1810s). This building, however, is not from 1782. Although the mission was founded at that time, several buildings have come and gone. This one was started in the 1790s, I think, but was not completed until after the turn of the nineteenth century. 

Diorama of the mission as it was in Spanish times, at the Museum of Mission San Buenaventura

The tour of the mission is self-guided, and the mission museum provides the visitor with very little information to guide with. This was very much unlike some of the cathedrals we visited in Peru last summer where they had amazing audio-guides. I was glad to have visited Peru, however, for what I learned there about Spanish colonialism perhaps helped me understand a little bit better what was going on at these missions in late eighteenth-century California.

Church interior, Mission San Buenaventura

A shrine inside the church at Mission San Buenaventura

The main altar of the church at Mission San Buenaventura

Another shrine in the church at Mission San Buenaventura

I did not spend more than thirty minutes at the mission. There were a few interpretive panels there explaining the lives and labors of Chumash Indians, the primary people preached to by the Spanish priests. Chumash were rounded up and forced to live in and around the mission—thousands were rounded up and removed from the Channel Islands in the nineteenth century, too. At the mission many of them worked in cattle ranching and hide and tallow processing. This is important because it was hides and tallow that beckoned American ships to visit ports like San Buenaventura in the early nineteenth century. And, it was on ships such as those American ships that Hawaiian migrant workers made their way to Spanish / Mexican California.

Before this recent trip to California, I already knew that there were some Hawaiians living and working in nearby Santa Barbara in the Mexican period (1820s-1840s), but I had not heard of any Buenaventura connection. But then, at the Huntington Library just last week, I uncovered a manuscript that detailed the experiences of an American ship along the Spanish California coast in the first decade of the nineteenth century. There were Hawaiian seamen aboard that ship, and in one instance upon docking at San Buenaventura, the Hawaiian men were said to have deserted ship and ran for the hills above town. So of course I took a photograph of the hills just above the mission so that we can all imagine what it that was like for those Hawaiian deserters in Spanish Alta California!

The hills above San Buenaventura, where Hawaiian seamen took refuge over two hundred years ago...

A few final photographs from the mission:

In the mission courtyard, a statue of Junipero Serra, the man who brought Catholicism to California in the eighteenth century

Behind the mission, a statue of Kateri Tekakwitha, a native of my own homeland (sort of)—the Mohawk River Valley of New York where I grew up. How strange to find Kateri here, in Ventura County, California, when so many times I have walked the woods where she once walked in upstate New York. This just shows the globality of Catholicism, I guess: from Mohawks to the Chumash, the missionaries left no stone unturned.

Well, my next goal was to find the local post office to send someone a postcard... but on the way I serendipitously wandered through a farmers' market...

Farmers' Market, San Buenaventura, California

Oh, just a beautiful 1930s WPA mural inside the Ventura Post Office!

After the post office, it was time for lunch. I visited Mary's Secret Garden, an all-vegan restaurant recommended by my California guidebook. It did not disappoint! I had an amazing corn tortilla soup and then a huge salad with big chunks of fresh avocado and pieces of mock chicken. It was a perfect lunch!

You know you're in a vegan restaurant when the interior of the bathroom looks like this. :)

Next stop: Ventura Harbor. But the harbor is a few miles from downtown, so I was a little worried about how I was going to get there. Thankfully, I discovered that the City of San Buenaventura has a free trolley service to and from the harbor. Perfect. So I jumped on the trolley and got to the harbor around 12:30 P.M.

View of Ventura Harbor

It was a beautiful afternoon. I still had a little over an hour before my cruise to the Channel Islands, so I walked down the harbor road a bit more to the Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center (which is actually here, at Ventura Harbor on the mainland, rather than out on the islands). I watched a film about the islands narrated by Kevin Costner. Saw a few exhibits. Bought a postcard. Then wandered back to Island Packers, the company that was going to ship me out to the islands, over ten miles offshore.

Our ship headed out at 2 P.M. As we left the harbor, we got to say "hello" to the hundreds of California brown pelicans that call the harbor home. The smell of guano wafted into my nose on the breeze, and the noise of the birds was overwhelming. We saw some Peruvian pelicans last summer, but I've never seen so many pelicans all together like this before. Between the harbor and the Channel Islands, we must have seen thousands of them.

Hundreds of California brown pelicans, Ventura Harbor
Another view of the brown pelican resting place at Ventura Harbor. All that whiteness on the rocks: that's guano.

As we left the harbor, we started to see other wildlife, such as these California sea lions all hanging out on a buoy:
California sea lions on a buoy off of San Buenaventura, California

We chugged along towards Anacapa Island, the closest of the Channel Islands to the mainland. Then, we were there!
Off of Anacapa Island, Channel Islands National Park

During our journey from mainland to islands, I couldn't help but think how much water there is here! And of course I was only seeing such a small fraction of the Pacific Ocean. As we traveled along the surface of the waves, I imagined the land beneath us, hundreds of feet down. So much of the Earth is just drowned with saltwater. But we almost never think of it. Billions of gallons of saltwater just sit on top of 70% of our planet's land. That is so much water! It is incredible and impossible to fathom.

And we are such landlubbers. Centuries ago many of us would have known what it was like to travel across the ocean, to feel seasickness (and to overcome it), to know life on board a boat day after day, week after week, sometimes year after year. Now how many humans today still experience the ocean is that way?

Anacapa is a really beautiful island. Here are some more photographs:

Historic lighthouse atop Anacapa Island, Channel Islands National Park
Parts of Anacapa Island, which is in actuality many small islands put together (but it's all connected underneath the waves, of course. And in fact, all the Channel Islands are part of one big mountain ridge beneath the water's surface).

The lighthouse atop hundreds of feet of rock and lots and lots of bird guano!

Anacapa Island, in pieces

Anacapa Island, in pieces

We rounded Anacapa Island to visit the marine life on the backside of the island—that is, the ocean-facing side. Here is where we found countless rookeries of large (and loud) harbor seals.
A harbor seal rookery on the ocean-facing side of Anacapa Island

Another harbor seal rookery on the ocean-facing side of Anacapa Island. Good thing I brought my binoculars!

Seeing the thousands of harbor seals resting on these protected beaches made me strangely enough think more about the human past. There is evidence of human habitation in the Channel Islands going back at least 13,000 years. The Chumash people called these islands home for thousands of years, all the way until the early nineteenth century when they were forced off. I want to think that the harbor seals, the brown pelicans, the sea lions, and the Chumash all lived in harmony. But I don't know the evidence well enough to say that—and historians don't find it very fashionable today to talk about "ecological Indians." We do know that on the mainland of North America, indigenous peoples sometimes conserved nature and sometimes destroyed it. There is no denying that many creatures that once lived in the Americas were made extinct by the humans that arrived ten to fifteen thousand years ago. (Similarly, in HawaiĘ»i we know of countless species that were wiped off the face of the Earth by the earliest Polynesian colonists.) To say this is not to indict our ancestors—especially indigenous people's ancestors. Things happen, and most extinctions in human history were effected without any real knowledge of what was taking place. Anyway, the point is that, as far as I learned in my visit to the Channel Islands, there wasn't a mass extinction here when the Chumash's ancestors arrived. At least the iconic species seen today—the seals and sea lions, pelicans and cormorants and oyster-catchers—they seemed to survive ten thousand years of co-habitation with Amerindians just fine, at least much better than they survived just two centuries (19th and 20th) of co-habitation with Euro-Americans, who slaughtered and skinned them and destroyed their habitats in a fit of wild capitalism.

But all this is to say that Channel Islands National Park, like most national parks, does not really show "California as it once was" (as Kevin Costner tells us in the National Park Service video). No, "California as it once was" had more than just seals and sea lions here: it also had people. Unless Channel Islands National Park wants us to see "California as it once was fifteen thousand years ago before there were any humans here" than they are not really "preserving" the islands in their "natural" state. Because people are part of nature, too; their removal from these islands was a historical wrong, and to allow the Chumash to return to these islands, in my opinion, would be a good thing. If they lived with seals and sea lions and pelicans for over ten thousand years on these islands, who are we to say that they must stop doing that today?

Instead, people who live in this part of the Pacific Ocean live on structures like this one:

An oil rig in Santa Barbara Channel off of California. The structure reaches down over seven hundred feet below the surface of the ocean, and protudes a few hundred feet above the ocean. For people who live and work on this rig, it is like living and working on the top floor of the Empire State Building—that's how tall the structure is—except that most of the building has been flooded by the ocean. 

Off course this place was the site of one of the worst oil spills in American history. The spill here in 1969—the worst ever except for the Exxon spill of 1989 and the recent BP spill in the Gulf—was, in many historians' opinions, one of the catalysts for the modern American environmental movement. And all you have to do is look back at those photographs of pelicans, sea lions, and harbor seals to imagine the devastation that humans can have on nature when we mess up.
Returning to the mainland...

It was an eye-opening excursion. I love seabirds and I love marine mammals, and it brought such joy to my heart to see them all. The trip really left me meditating on the relationships between humans and non-human animals, both historically and in our contemporary era. Lots to think about.

I came out to these islands because Hawaiian migrant workers killed sea otters along the coasts of these islands in the 1830s. This was, I think, right after the Chumash were removed to the mainland. Strange then that other "natives," as the employers sometimes called these Hawaiians, came to live on these Channel Islands for a short time in the Chumash's place. (This is, needless to say, not a story told by the National Park Service. I couldn't find anything Hawaiian related on the islands or at the visitor center. Also, I asked one of our guides whether she ever saw sea otters along the islands (which we did not), and she said "no. very, very rarely." Which made me kind of sad. At least one part of these islands' natural history has seemingly disappeared...)

That's it for Day 26. Back onshore, I grabbed dinner and a beer at a local bar near the train station, re-boarded Amtrak around 7:30 P.M., got into Los Angeles a bit before 10, and was back in my hotel in Pasadena by 11 P.M. What a day!

Next up: my trip to the Pacific Asia Museum, and a lunch that was so good it made be barf. No joke.

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