Eco-Psych History of Two Trees Ventura, CA
Yesterday was the first day of spring, and a new moon with a solar eclipse (photo from Longyearbyen on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, Norway via APOD details here). As I mentioned yesterday, the first new moon of spring is an ideal time to dig in deep–whether in the soil or within yourself. The days before and after an eclipse are a time for reflection on what you find hidden in the shadow; it’s also when Lord Ganesha roams the earth, there to help us remove obstacles. What is the eclipse revealing for you? What will you plant? What will you grow? Where have you been and where are you growing?
Yesterday, we marked the day with a walk up a steep hill above town at sunset and moon set. Locals call the place “Two Trees.” (Note: I originally published this yesterday with the eclipse and moved it to be on its own post this morning.) This place and these trees help me to stay acquainted with my breathing body so that “the perceived world itself begins to shift and transform” (David Abram, Spell of the Sensuous, 1996, p. 63). What follows is a history of Two Trees –a personal, ecopsychological, depth psychological, and historical version based on my own research and the research of others, including my mom, Suzanne Paquette Lawrence. These trees are my inheritance–they teach me “how the cracks in stones and the veins of leaves parallel the lineaments of the human soul” (Chalquist, 2007, p. 12).
When my great grandparents Elmer Ellsworth and Anna Moore Paquette came from Kansas and Colorado as newlyweds in 1905 to San Buenaventura, home of the newly modernized “Mission by the Sea,” like a beacon on the highest hill above town stood a grove of thirteen Blue Gum eucalyptus trees planted by horticulturalist Joseph Sexton just a few years before. To sustain the saplings, he hired his neighbor to haul water up the steep dry hillsides covered in shoulder high mustard, various short grasses, slender stemmed blue dicks, and lupine with its palm shaped leaves in late winter and rattling pea pods in late spring. Dark green, even then the youthful trees would have stood out huddled against the blue sky and tawny hillsides.
The remaining trees were the first landmark that etched onto my consciousness of place, a navigational north star. No matter where we were in town, and usually regardless of the weather, the trees were there, a reference, a grounding, the center of our sprawling, linear universe that spread from the Ventura River on the northwest edge to the Santa Clara River bordering the southwest. As we traveled through town, I imagined being at sea, and using the trees to find my way to the San Buenaventura Mission, or to land my merchant ship at the wharf, or to beach my Chumash tomol on the mudflats of Pierpont Bay. On my bicycle riding from where we lived in the “Morningside Tract” on the east end of town west to the ocean, I felt as if I traveled on a small sailboat navigating my way through the swells of traffic; as long as the trees were to my right, I was going in the right direction; if they were on my left, I was heading home.
The thirteen trees above the city weren’t intended to guide travelers. Instead, Sexton planted them on a whim in 1898, part of a tree planting blitz led by Theodosia Burr Shepherd “The Flower Wizard of California” and my great grandmother’s boss at the famous “Shepherd’s Gardens.” Exotics like the giant Moreton Fig still stand today in downtown Ventura’s Plaza Park across from the post office. With Theodosia Burr Shepherd busy with various causes, hosting famous personages, propagating plants, guiding tours of her gardens, organizing women to grow everything from rhubarb to calla lilies for her seed business, plus traveling the state giving speeches, while her daughter Myrtle minded the books, my great grandmother Anna managed Shepherd’s Garden, in her spare time wrote a column about gardening for the Los Angeles Times, and when money for food was short, she worked in Fazio and Newby’s Bakery which shamed my great aunt Anne terribly.
The town of Ventura is named after the Mission San Buenaventura which in turn is named for Saint Bonaventure; he in turn was named following an exclamation of “O Buona Ventura!” (oh good fortune!) when St Francis of Assisi healed him as a child. Saint Bonaventure is known as a philosopher as well as a theologian who argued that philosophy could lead to God and that “all creatures, from rocks to angels, are signs in the sense of shadows and traces of God, for they all bear a relation of causal dependency upon God as their source” (Noonee and Howser, 2010).
As the Missionaries took over the region, they noticed the festival for Hutash was held about the time of the year as the Feast of San Miguel–on September 29. To compete, instead of celebrating the mid-July feast day of Saint Bonaventure, the Mission San Buenaventura held a major harvest festival in honor of San Miguel. San Miguel is the name of one of the Channel Islands which can rarely be seen from Ventura while Rancho San Miguel was a 4700 acre Mexican land grant in 1841 to the Olivas family that covered all of Ventura except for the Mission rancho.
An archangel whose name means “who is like unto God?” San Miguel was “the guardian angel of the Kingdom of Christ on earth and was the heavenly leader in the fight against all enemies of God” (Weiser), As the protector of all Christians on Earth as well as in purgatory, San Miguel or Saint Michael served as a psychopomp, accompanying the soul to heaven or hell; because of this, cemetery chapels are dedicated to him (Weiser).
It was a practice of the Church to build shrines to Saint Michael on the tops of mountains; the logical site for such a shrine in Ventura would be the site of Two Trees.
Synchronistically, Sexton planted his thirteen trees during the period of the Mission’s modernization, just before my family rode into town on a wagon. As the town became more secular, the celebration of harvest took place at the county fair starting in 1874 and held concurrent or immediately after San Miguel Days until commercial and tourism interests dictated the fair’s move from late September to early August.
All but five of the thirteen trees on the hill were lost to fire, then others to vandalism, and the spot became known as Five Trees. My friend Harmony says that her great uncle and his buddies cut two of them down in the post-war 40s as a senior prank at Halloween. Local architect Nick Deitch remembered how Curtis Stiles, who became a prominent landscape architect and member of the planning commission, was involved in cutting one of the trees down in the 50s back when he was my mom’s classmate at Ventura High School. Over the years, other eucalyptus trees were planted and tended in an attempt for there to be once again Five Trees on the hill. My friend Alana remembers the one and only time she walked up there in the 1960s and her boyfriend carried a five gallon glass jug of water for the young trees. When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, everyone called them Five Trees, even though at that point there were only two. When I returned to Ventura after twelve years of college and travel, only a few old timers still called the spot Five Trees.
Like I said at the beginning, these trees help me to stay acquainted with my breathing body so that “the perceived world itself begins to shift and transform” (David Abram, Spell of the Sensuous, 1996, p. 63). What keeps you acquainted?
It doesn’t take an eclipse to make a day remarkable — it is you, remarking on it, noticing the sky, the trees, the clouds, your breath, and the breath of the earth. Each day is remarkable, when we pay attention.
NOTE: Much of the body of this post was written for a paper for Dr, Craig Chalquist in partial fulfillment for my MA in Ecopsychology at Pacific Graduate Institute.