The past is never dead. It isn’t even past. — William Faulkner
The island was a real place, San Nicolas Island, about 70 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara. A native woman, later called Juana Maria, had been found there in 1835. She’d been marooned for 18 years.
Scott O’Dell spoke to the assembled student body in the auditorium. He was not a young man. I recollect a resonant voice and gentle manner, neatly swept-back grey hair, but nothing of what he said about Island of the Blue Dolphins, except regarding the book’s title.
“The dolphins near San Nicolas Island,” he said, “Are blue-green, not blue. But that made for an awkward title, so I shortened it.”
Scott O’Dell’s book won the Newbery Medal a year after it was published, and has become a children’s classic. I was on my Heinlein kick in Jr. high school, however, and didn’t read it.
A month or so ago, Nick and I paid a visit to a local high school campus, which, I had recently discovered, contains an archeological site and small museum.
An underground spring runs through the school, bubbling up briefly, then disappearing. Where the spring surfaces a Gabrielino village once existed; the place is called Kuruvungna Springs.
Every year on Columbus day, members of the tribe stage a festival, open to the public, on the site. It’s called “Life Before Columbus Festival.” Nick and I attended this year.
After the ceremonial dancing, I wandered through the museum, housed in a school bungalow. I came across an exhibit about Juana Maria. After her rescue from San Nicolas Island she went to live at Mission Santa Barbara. By all accounts she was happy to be in civilization, but lived only seven weeks after her arrival, succumbing to dysentery.
Her true native name was never known, but Father Gonzales of the mission baptized her before she died, giving her the Spanish name. Her story, the exhibit said, could be found in Scott O’Dell’s novel, Island of the Blue Dolphins.
I was born here, and it gives me pleasure knowing I live near the site of a Gabrielino village.
Gabrielino culture is said to have been focused on the dream world. The Gabrielino spent part of every day discussing the visions of the previous night. Perhaps something in the land made this happen. If so, the same spirit made south California fertile ground for the later culture of motion pictures.
On balmy days, when the Santa Anas blow through town, you sometimes get the feeling that the desert winds are not so much rushing by you as through you. The feeling is augmented, I suppose, if you’ve been born here, and have taken naps as an infant in the lazy sunshine.
You feel closer to the land, and all the asphalt and concrete appear incidental to an older sense of habitation. You almost want to say, as I find myself sometimes saying, I am the dust of this place, and I know what it must have been like, back then, before the orchards and the roads and the adobe houses.
The forces of natural order are still at work. Do not doubt them.
Of course, I bought a copy of Island of the Blue Dolphin’s to read to Nick. We started it a few nights ago and it’s wonderful. You can tell, reading it, that Scott O’Dell, born here on Terminal Island, has walked the length and breadth of south California and felt the desert wind blowing in his body.
The book is written in the first person, from Juana Maria’s perspective. What her perspective truly was we can’t of course know. But the perspective in the book is valid and authentic, like all true art.
Here is something else valid: the Kuruvungna Spring.
In a culture of fantasy and re-invention, it’s sometimes hard to separate what seems from what is. A lot of what you see around here is blurry and lifted from storybooks. Sun-kissed photographs of orange groves where the oranges, huge and lovely, are painted.
So I wanted, when Nick and I arrived at the village, to see the spring. There was a sort of pond where some children played, and the water appeared to be flowing. It was advertised as the spring, but how had it got there? Had the original been diverted long ago through pipes and storm drains like the rest of the city’s river? Was water being pumped into the pond for our benefit?
“Come here,” one of the tribe’s women said to me.
She led me a ways off to a shallow well with a circle of bricks around it. The floor of the well was a bowl. At first I thought it was made of concrete, but then I saw it was mud. The water was clear and still, but here and there on the bottom, little clouds of mud formed and re-formed.
“See the little puffs?” she said. “That’s new water–the source of the spring.”
“Where does it come from?”
“Underground,” she said.
Still at work.
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:
Marooned from the L.A. Times
Painting credit: “Wiyot’s Children.” Gabrielino Indian Village of Sa-angna, Playa del Rey, CA. by Mary Leighton Thomson. Print may be purchased from Friends of the Ballona Wetlands.
Just Add Father is listening. (Add your thoughts by clicking a few lines below below, where it says comments or add one. I always respond here.)
If you like this post and have a Facebook, Twitter, or other social media account, please consider sharing it by clicking one of the buttons below: