Thursday, October 24, 2013

Baptized Into The San Juan Creek Watershed

The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.
James Baldwin

I can't save the world on my own. It'll take at least three of us.
Bill Mollison

Just five miles south of where we live in Southern California's San Juan Creek watershed is a freeway off ramp called Cristianitos ("little Christians"). As it turns out, this road, leading into the northernmost gate of the Camp Pendleton Marine Base, was the site of a baptism of two girls of the Acjachemon tribe in 1769. They were deathly ill and the company of soldiers and priests traveling through colonizing the region could not heal they converted them.

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, there were roughly 550 natives scattered throughout the local area. By 1790, almost 15 years after the induction of the San Juan Capistrano Mission on All Saints Day in 1776, the number of converted Christians in the San Juan Creek watershed had grown to 700. By 1796, 1,649 baptisms were conducted.

The Natives of the San Juan Creek watershed had been there for thousands of years. Called the "Juanenos" by the Europeans, they organized themselves into two slightly different communities: referred to by the Spanish as the Playanos (beach) and the Serranos (mountains). The Playanos, who lived close to beaches that today are called Doheny, Poche, Strands, The Hole and T-Street, were a deeply spiritual people, believing in an all-powerful and unseen being called "Nocuma" who brought about the earth and the sea, together with all of the trees, plants, and animals of sky, land, and water contained therein.

Father Junipero Serra (a freeway ramp just 5 miles north of us is named after him), and his fellow priests at the Mission, followed a blueprint for colonization agreed upon by the Spanish Crown and the Catholic Church, calling for a parent-child relationship between Indians and missionaries, listing crimes that required physical punishment: including adultery, sex between unmarried people, homosexuality and desertion from the mission.

The missionary and ethnographer Geronimo Boscana chronicled the lives of those native to the San Juan Creek watershed in the early 18th century:

The Indians of California may be compared to a species of monkey; for in naught do they express interest, except in imitating the actions of others, and particularly, in copying the ways of razon [men of reason] or white men, whom they respect as beings much superior to themselves; but in doing so, they are careful to select vice, in preference to virtue. This is the result, undoubtedly, of their corrupt and natural disposition.

In addition to this hideous paternalism, the colonizers brought with them horses, oxen, cows & pigs, as well as common venereal and respiratory diseases, pneumonia, tuberculosis, small pox, and measles. By the 1830's, as much as 80% of the Native population had been killed off by European diseases, while the Land was divided up into ranchos, originally promised to Native converts to Christianity, but instead awarded to political appointees & Spanish settlers who joined the soldiers and missionaries. Over time, much of these ranchos have been sold to private developers, converting the Land to housing tracts, commercial real estate and golf courses.

Before the European invasion, the San Juan Creek watershed was teeming with Life, with sixteen major plant communities and hundreds of species of birds, invertebrates, mammals, and others. However, the watershed is projected to be 48 percent developed by the year 2050. Many reaches of open land in the San Juan watershed are now heavily developed, and urban runoff coming from residential communities is taking an increased toll on the creek and its tributaries.

The colonization project continued over the centuries. Thousands of acres of orange, palm and eucalyptus trees were planted as cash crops. The eucalyptus, which could grow 60 feet in 6 years, was initially planted in response to wood shortages: for houses, furniture, telephone poles, wagons and rail ties.

The bubble soon burst, however, when a 1913 U.S. Department of Agriculture report confirmed what others had long known: that eucalyptus wood warped, cracked, and twisted as it dried. Investors were ruined, and eucalyptus groves reverted to farmland as steel, concrete, and other artificial materials made up for the hardwood shortage.

Eventually, farmers and orange growers planted endless miles of eucalypti to protect their crops from the wind. Today this non-native, highly invasive tree lines highways, roads and open land all over the San Juan Creek watershed. As they age, these giant trees can be quite dangerous:

Orange County has removed 137 blue gum eucalyptus trees after the Sept. 15, [2011] death of Haeyoon Miller. Local arborists and tree care specialists said blue gums were not meant to live in Southern California and are failing.

The Eucalyptus is an apocalyptic parable for all of us living in the colonized SJC Watershed. It represents a violent, overlooked takeover of Nature. It is just one rather disastrous species of many introduced by "job creators" all over Southern California.

Meanwhile, the final three miles of San Juan Creek has been laid with concrete for flood control and, in 1964, the Dana Point Chamber of Commerce sought and received $1 million from the federal government to build a recreational harbor, wiping out the epic waves of "Killer Dana," one of the best surf spots on the California coast. According to the Surfline website, pollution added insult to injury:

With the disappearance of Killer Dana, water circulation in the bay decreased. Resultantly, as pollution from San Juan Creek continued to flow freely into the bay, it stayed there for a longer period of time in comparison with that if the harbor had never been built. The pollution problems are ongoing, posing problems at Doheny Beach, where the 850,000 annual visitors are threatened by the continuing pollution from San Juan Creek.

Heal the Bay comes out with an annual report card for all 413 California beaches. Doheny Beach, at the mouth of the San Juan Creek, received an F in 2013, the 7th most polluted beach in the state. The 170 square mile SJ Watershed runs through dozens of municipalities collecting urban run-off and other pollutants along the way, throwing them up into the ocean.

Perhaps the most notorious colonizers of the Land have been the housing developers, making hundreds of millions of dollars by systematically converting this bioregion into a suburban "paradise" (I grew up driving past countless billboards advertising my hometown: "Mission Viejo: The California Promise"). As slow-growth initiatives failed at the ballot-box and in court, the post-war cancerous growth of neighborhoods covering the Land stretching from Saddleback Mountain to the sea has been nothing short of ignominious.

The San Juan Creek watershed has endured a brutal legacy of almost 250 years of European Christian and capitalist colonization. Political and economic policies (decisions made by elected officials & sanctioned by families & faith communities) have shielded or quarantined racial minorities (out of the top 50 metropolitan areas within the U.S. Orange County is the only one with an African-American population under 5%). And churches have given their blessing or remained "neutral" in the face of this massive devastation. As Wendell Berry wrote:

It has, for the most part, stood silently by while a predatory economy has ravaged the world, destroyed its natural beauty and health, divided and plundered its human communities and households. It has flown the flag and chanted the slogans of empire…In its de facto alliance with Caesar, Christianity connives directly in the murder of Creation. For in these days, Caesar is no longer a mere destroyer of armies, cities, and nations. He is a contradicter of the fundamental miracle of life… .He prays, he says, and churches everywhere compliantly pray with him. But he is praying to a God whose works he is prepared at any moment to destroy.

This colonizing brand of establishment Christianity has been confronted by Native Americans who have since spoken out dramatically against the vicious irony of followers of the nonviolent Jesus who have wreaked havoc on global neighbors and the Land. Two decades ago, Native Americans in South America symbolically returned the Bible to Pope John Paul II:

John Paul II, we, Andean and American Indians, have decided to take
advantage of your visit to return to you your Bible, since in five centuries
it has not given us love, peace or justice.

Please take back your Bible and give it back to our oppressors, because
they need its moral teachings more than we do. Ever since the arrival of
Christopher Columbus a culture, a language, religion and values which
belong to Europe have been imposed on Latin America by force.

The Bible came to us as part of the imposed colonial transformation. It
was the ideological weapon of this colonialist assault. The Spanish sword
which attacked and murdered the bodies of Indians by day and night
became the cross which attacked the Indian soul.

A 21st century brand of Christian faith & praxis--a Watershed Discipleship--must come to terms with this history by reciting & lamenting this history (re-membering) and envisioning a new way forward for both the people and the Land (re-placing) of the San Juan Creek watershed. There is no room for apathy, cynicism or indifference. This passionate & prophetic proclamation will involve warning, hope & demand, requiring many creative & consistent disciplines & practices including:

-"Public liturgies" (Scripture reading, Eucharistic celebration, singing, prayer, dialogue) conducted at key places of colonization (SJC Mission, Doheny jetty, Shorecliffs Golf Course, etc). These will work to educate and allow for lamentation.

-Financially supporting and building relationships with local farmers, through farmers market exchanges and CSAs.

-Learning to recognize native species of plants and birds.

-Building gardens committed to growing native plants, including milkweed which helps sustain migrating Monarch butterfly populations.

-Speaking on behalf of the Land at city council meetings and writing op-eds in local newspapers & OC Register.

-Making a list of local, independent businesses that commit to sustainable practices and advertising these to friends and family.

-Tearing out lawns and replacing them with native plants and trees (see Surfrider's "Ocean-friendly Gardens").

-Advocate for the large undocumented population within San Juan Capistrano, especially the undocumented youth of ACLAMO.

-Join in with the Friends of the Foothills to stop the toll road expansion on the southern edge of the SJ Watershed.

-Participate with the creative endeavors of the SJC Ecology Center.

-A voluntary corporate tax taken up by our intentional community that levies a $.25 fine on purchases at businesses with a D or F in the Better World Shopping Guide. Revenue will be donated to a local organization advocating for the indigenous and/or the Land.

-Prayer walks on the beaches of the SJC Watershed, using the Acjachemon name for the Creator God: Nocuma.

-A commitment to an alternative church calendar, remembering these key dates: July 22: Commemorating the 1st Baptism in the SJC Watershed (the start of an epidemic of a colonizing brand of Christianity); August 29: Lamenting The Death of Killer Dana; October 14: Indigenous Peoples Day (formerly Columbus Day); November 1: All Saints Day (the opening of SJC Mission in 1776); The Day After Thanksgiving: Buy Nothing Day

These practices and disciplines can begin a unique life of following Jesus into the San Juan Creek Watershed. It's a start. After all, the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.
Epilogue: A Prayer of Walter Rauschenbusch
O God, we thank you for this universe, our home; and for its vastness and richness, the exuberance of life which fills it and of which we are part. We praise you for the vault of heaven and for the winds, pregnant with blessings, for the clouds which navigate and for the constellations, there so high. We praise you for the oceans and for the fresh streams, for the endless mountains, the trees, the grass under our feet. We praise you for our senses, to be able to see the moving splendour, to hear the songs of lovers, to smell the beautiful fragrance of the spring flowers.

Give us, we pray you, a heart that is open to all this joy and all this beauty, and free our souls of the blindness that comes from preoccupation with the things of life, and of the shadows of passions, to the point that we no longer see nor hear, not even when the bush at the roadside is afire with the glory of God. Give us a broader sense of communion with all living things, our sisters, to whom you gave this world as a home along with us.

We remember with shame that in the past we took advantage of our greater power and used it with unlimited cruelty, so much so that the voice of the earth, which should have arisen to you as a song was turned into a moan of suffering.

May we learn that living things do not live just for us, that they live for themselves and for you, and that they love the sweetness of life as much as we do, and serve you, in their place, better than we do in ours. When our end arrives and we can no longer make use of this world, and when we have to give way to others, may we leave nothing destroyed by our ambition or deformed by our ignorance, but may we pass along our common heritage more beautiful and more sweet, without having removed from it any of its fertility and joy, and so may our bodies return in peace to the womb of the great mother who nourished us and our spirits enjoy perfect life in you.


  1. Love it.
    "I can't save the world on my own. It'll take at least three of us."
    Bill Mollison

  2. Tom, you have once again articulated with such eloquence so many important truths, and grounded your thinking in your place, which is what I believe we all need to do. I certainly am convicted to start making a list with my community here in Portland. Thank you for your words. I was especially grateful to see in your list of suggested actions support for undocumented workers and some financial resources allocated for either the land or to support indigenous folks in the area. I have also been wondering about my responsibility/calling (as a colonizer) to build a deeper relationship with indigenous folks (who are willing) in the watershed, and was curious about how you see that showing up in your list of suggestions. You cited the indigenous folks in South America giving the bible back to the pope. Do you have any thoughts about how we can incorporate what they speak into our list of what a watershed disciple does? I'm not sure I have a lot to offer from my own thinking at this point, only that my list will include starting to show up for relationship at events led or hosted by Native Americans (where I am explicitly welcome to do so) and educating myself about the history of the indigenous folks in the area.

  3. Tom, I appreciated this blog very much. It was thoughtfully passionate and well-written. Recent estimates propose the loss of population from small pox could be nearer to 95% than 80%. I very much liked the list you provided of initiatives. I felt though there was one striking detail lacking. There was no move to form a relationship with the indigenous people and continue the reconciliation process ()and possibly help them work toward self-determination). I think this is a very important aspect of our reconciliation process with the land and its people here on Turtle Island. Thanks again for writing this!

    -Matt C.