Carl Gustav Jung first makes reference to his concept of synchronicity in 1928 during a series of seminars that would eventually be published as Dream Analysis.
During the course of the seminar, and previous to that, Jung had ran across instances where coincidences would oftentimes arise between dream images and corresponding identical images in the dreamer’s day to day life.
Jung referred to these phenomena as “living things,” but was careful to add, “It would be a mistake to consider them as causal; events don’t come about because of dreams that would be absurd, we can never demonstrate that; they just happen with a sort of irrational regularity.”
Also during this period, Jung was engrossed in his friend and colleague, Richard Wilhelm’s recently published translation of the Taoist classic The Secret of the Golden Flower, using its contents as a point of reference for understanding the unexplained phenomena of the dream sequences, telling seminar attendees:
“The East bases much of its science on this irregularity and considers coincidences as the reliable basis of the world rather than causality. Synchronism is the prejudice of the East; causality is the modern prejudice of the West. The more we busy ourselves with dreams, the more we shall see such coincidences – chances. Remember that the oldest Chinese scientific book (the I Ching) is about the possible chances in life.”
It’s from this perspective – the perspective of irrational regularity that one must view Ron Cooper’s long and convoluted road from avant-garde artist to world-class producer of single-village mezcal, vital preserver of long-held Oaxacan tradition, and recently, James Beard Award finalist.
During the course of learning of his journey first-hand, I found myself inextricably drawn into its improbable course through an uncanny set of parallels that had us both wondering how we’d never met, while simultaneously enmeshing us in our own unique set of synchronistic circumstances.
Ron Cooper and the Oranges of Heironymous Bosch
Ron Cooper was raised in the idyllic village of Ojai, discreetly tucked into the inspiring Topa Topa Mountains between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara and home to the powerful and remarkably advanced Chumash nation.
In fact, Ojai is a Chumash word that means “valley of the moon,” and on any given full moon, one can see why the name is appropriate, as silver light bathes mountaintops of pine and fir climbing to 7, 514 feet, down to a chaparral covered valley perfumed in orange blossoms and immemorially framed by pyramid-shaped peaks.
I was raised about twelve miles south in Ventura, but found myself drawn to Ojai as a young man, spending most of my time hiking in the bosom of the Topa Topa and relishing in Ojai’s more bohemian culture.
As a boy and young man, Cooper attended the renowned Happy Valley School in Ojai, a bastion of liberal learning created by, among others, renowned Theosophist Dr. Annie Besant, novelist and critic Aldous Huxley, and Krishnamurti, the celebrated philosopher and teacher the Dalai Lama has referred to as “one of the greatest thinkers of our time.”
As we sat on his couch in his art studio in Ranchos de Taos last week I mentioned Krishnamurti, as I spent a lot of formative time at his old house in Ojai. Cooper went silent for as moment, looking off into space before slowly replying, “I can still hear Krishnamurti’s words from time to time, like it was yesterday.”
“It was an incredible experience,” he adds, still visibly caught up in the memory.
“I mean…imagine having Joseph Campbell, Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley and Krishnamurti as teachers?” he emphatically says, now leaning toward me and intently looking into my eyes to see if I truly get the magnitude of what he’s saying. I can only shake my head “no” silently and look back on my uneventful and awkward public school experience with a twinge of regret.
Yet, we do share sensually-driven memories of Ojai in our formative years; the intoxicating scent of orange blossoms amidst long summer nights of awakening; long, solitary hikes in the Topa Topa; the brisk and powerful Surf of Ventura to Los Angeles and all the way down to Mexico.
“We have our own culture on the West Coast,” he matter-of-factly states. “I went to New York and all the artists there were looking to Europe for inspiration, and I realized that as a Californian I was part of a culture that didn’t look West, but East. California is setting sun and Zen. China and Japan are our influences, and those traditions are very strong and have deep roots.”
In addition to Far-East influences, Cooper willingly tells of a deep respect for the local Chumash culture, whose petroglyphs in the local mountains speak of an advanced time-keeping culture on par with the Mayans.
His first love was a Chumash beauty, and he still recalls her affectionately. “Her Father was a respected elder, and she had a very regal quality to her,” Cooper fondly recounted, as if she were standing next to him.
As he recalls his time with her, I’m thinking of the coincidence of his first love being indigenous American and how deeply his life currently is rooted into the ancient heart of native America way down in Oaxaca via mezcal.
The connection wasn’t intentional on Cooper’s part, though; it’s only through a series of irrational regularities that he’s almost accidentally become the godfather of some of the best mezcal the world has to offer.
A few minutes later we’re getting ready to taste through his line-up, and I’m hoping my enthusiasm isn’t too evident, yet it’s hard to contain, as his I know his mezcals have wowed the super-stratosphere of the world’s acclaimed Chefs, including, among others, Ferran Adria of El Bulli fame, his disciple, José Andres, and Les Halles bad-boy Anthony Bourdain.
As he eyes his line-up to see where he wants to start, the mood turns reverential. He eventually decides on the San Luis Del Rio and pulls out a couple of clay hand-made saucers he suggests one drink his mezcal from.
He gently lifts the cork and pours out a libation on the floor, saying, “For the gods,” then deftly pours us each a bit. Seeing him go through the ceremony of serving his mezcal, I wonder how and when his relationship with the ancient drink came about.
“So…how the hell did this all start?” I bluntly ask, while shaking my head in disbelief. “I mean, how does the Ojai kid and LA artist become one of the number one producers and importers of world-class mezcal?
Cooper smiles, sticks his nose into his saucer and breathes deeply before replying, “Robbie Dick – arguably one of the greatest surfboard shapers of all time – and I were hanging around after a group art show in LA, and someone brought out a bottle of the only good Tequila available in the United States in 1970 – Herradura Blanca. During the drinking of it… the question came up, ‘do you think the Pan-American Highway really exists’?”, he coolly replies while wearing a Cheshire- cat grin.
“And to today…no one can remember who asked the question. Two weeks later three of us were on the road. Four months later we found Panama – but on the way we found…Oaxaca. My headquarters are in Teotitlan Del Valle, the weaving village, and that’s where we made our first friends. So I got into the ritual use of Mezcal back then, “Cooper says, his face now turned dead serious.
He sticks his nose back into his saucer and breathes deeply and I quickly follow suit. Immediately, silky-smooth smokiness leaps out with a hint of black pepper, followed by notes of caramel.
We make a quick toast and then take the first sip. The body is full and fleshy and simultaneously ethereal. Hints of apple and bay leaf appear, then give way to a Scotch-like bogginess that drifts away like a fog to bring one back to the beginning of caramel-smokiness.
I’m visibly moved, yet unable to speak while Cooper coyly continues to sip, undoubtedly used to the adulation by now.
He approaches the mezcals from a non-interventionist approach, respecting the ancient traditions that his producers have been practicing their entire lives with near-religious zeal.
It’s not just mezcal to Cooper, but a culture and tradition as old as the cult of Dionysus. He only works with small-batches, names the mezcals after the villages they come from, and candidly speaks about terruño, the Spanish equivalent of the French terroir, a term generally used in conjunction with wine, when describing his mezcal’s individual characteristics.
Still, I’m confused as to how and what sort of irrational regularity led him to his mezcal obsession. What made the surf-bum-artist think he could get the start-up money, or run an international business?
When I ask him about it, he says, “In 1984, life was devoid of light.” It was a dark time personally, and then, suddenly one day a voice spoke to me, and told me I had the right to anything I want.”
“From that point on, he adds, “I’ve never allowed anything to stop the creative process,” now displaying that electric smile of his.
“Del Maguey is actually getting to a place where we’re stable for the first time, instead of clawing my way up… and it enables me to finally go out and bring on these small producers who I love. As small as 25 liters in one year,” he adds after a beat, his dark brown eyes once again locked into mine to make sure I’m diggin’ what he’s saying.
The wine comparisons don’t end there, though, Cooper fancies himself a nègociant on par with Kermit Lynch, the Berkeley icon who’s been providing the wine to Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse since it first opened its doors. However, where wine produces a crop every year, it takes a full decade for agave to bear fruit, and can therefore be a more tenuous project.
While he is operating a business, it’s hard to tell where the line ends between business and spirituality; the bottom line and emotional fulfillment. And, ironically Cooper’s most enduring legacy very well may be as curator and perpetuator of indigenous culture.
Oaxaca’s diverse terrain matches its ethnic diversity, with Zapotec, Mixtec, Spanish and a bevy of other native dialects still spoken. Here, mezcal is produced the same way it was four centuries ago, back to the time of the cult of Tezcatlipoca– the smoking mirror god that rules through illusion and chaos.
Pulque is a frothy, fermented beverage made by tapping the aguamiel (honey water) from the heart of an agave plant and curing it with spices, herbs, grains, eggs and cream.
It was the chosen drink of pre-Columbian villagers, and adherents of Tezcatlipoca, who purportedly used the drink to make his rival, the Buddha/Christ- like Quetzalcoatl drunk to the point he lost his senses and engaged in a licentious affair with his sister. In shame, it’s said Quetzalcoatl left Mexico on a raft made of serpents, vowing to return one day and resume order to a delusional society.
I’m a little nervous because Cooper’s wielding a hand-made hatchet that resembles an Aztec obsidian blade, the chosen weapon of Aztec warriors, while recounting Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl’s battle to me.
At seventy he could easily pass for fifty, and his intense eyes exude youthfulness that reveal a feisty spirit when he begins to talk about art, life, and mezcal.
He’s living his own version of the Campbellian Hero’s Journey and like a true warrior, unabashedly let’s poetry flow forth through his actions. He quickly sets the axe down and strides back to the tasting table, grabbing bottles, inspecting them closer and then choosing another. After repeating this several times, he says, “Aha!” and pulls the cork on the Iberico.
As soon as I see the label, my eyes light up, for I know this to be not just mezcal, but a bottle of history. The Iberico is produced exactly the same way his pechuga de pollo is, which employs a technique brought by the Spanish and of Moorish roots that has a raw, skinned chicken breast hang within the still during fermentation. The process is believed to enhance and preserve the spirit of the mezcal while adding depth and balance.
José Andres tasted it down in Oaxaca, and was so impressed he sent Cooper a beautiful jamón Iberico to be used in place of the chicken breast. The result is the Iberico, which has just been made available, but at a hefty price, yet, in true Cooper fashion, the majority of the proceeds will go to charities him and Andres hand-select.
The Iberico is a complex thing, transcending the boundaries of taste and flavor by exhibiting its own sense of umami – that elusive fifth taste the Japanese covet, and conversely being as simple as a bowl of chicken soup, (or, ham soup in this case).
Its production is a testament to del Maguey’s culture, which simultaneously looks to the past, while preparing for the future.
“Come check this out,” he says, nodding with his head over to a pile of boxes up against the wall of his spacious art gallery. “These,” he says, as he rummages through a box before pulling out a thick, smoothly polished stone that looks as if it’s been hand-cut and appears to be very old. “These were worn by adherents of the cult of Tezcatlipoca,” he says, quickly holding it up just below his neck.
“You would wear it on a cord around your neck and use it as a personal mirror,” Cooper adds with a huge grin on his face. I’m thinking about how the stone reminds me of one of Apple’s tablets, when he quickly heads off in the direction of the opposing wall.
“And this,” he adds, voicing trailing off, “This is in the same series, but…well, just walk up to it,” he says, nodding at a smoothly polished disc hanging on the wall also apparently made of smooth stone. As you approach the disc, you can see your reflection in it, and when you get to a certain point, the white circle in the middle lights up.
The piece exhibits the Zen nature of Cooper’s existence, his own personal yin and yang that runs through all he does. Like us all, he’s a little yin/yang, Tezcatlipoca/Quetzalcoatl, but he seems to relish in the dichotomy, its duality proving terra firma for him.
I ask him how he felt when he found out he’d been selected as a James Beard Finalist. He goes quiet for a minute and stares at his feet, before slowly replying, “That night…that night…while lying in bed, I couldn’t get to sleep. I just lied there thinking about all the people who helped me along the way. I started to name them out loud as I lay there,” he adds, “And there were a lot…but I meditated hard on them all and personally thanked each and every one before going to sleep.”
Native American tradition honors the madman, or seer, for their ability to connect to the unseen forces of the universe. These ancient clowns of America are said to walk the path of the Milky Way, and so, their particular brand of “crazy wisdom” is consulted at feast times so the spirit may be heard.
As I’m getting ready to go and we’re saying our goodbyes, Cooper starts to tell another story for the road. “A while ago, I was at a fall celebration in a small village, and the local clown was putting on his show for everyone. You know…intoxicated with the spirit, but bringing messages for the villagers – who were all snickering away.”
“Baile! Baile! (dance! dance!), I yelled out to him, getting into the spirit myself,” he says, then pausing a moment for effect.
“The clown runs up to me and yells, “When are you coming back?”
“In the spring, I calmly reply.”
“Primavera!” the madman yells to no one in particular. “La Gran Nada!”
Cooper himself is now yelling like a madman, hands in the air as he himself dances a little jig, just like the clown. Then he offers his hand to me gives me a quick hug and tells me to be careful as I’m pulling out of the driveway.
Rancho de Taos, NM