The myth of California wilderness

By Lauren Lewis

The concept of “Small Spots in a Big World” is about putting our outdoor spaces in the context of space and time, in order to understand and appreciate them better, and consequently interact with them better. This post focuses on the context of time, on the millennial scale, and the way that plants and people have interacted intimately on the land we still inhabit. I’m taking a tiny dip into the immense story and detail contained in M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources. If the big ideas you find here are intriguing, the whole book is worth exploring.img_5026-e1501772019606.jpg

The big ideas in Tending the Wild are big in the sense that they up-end previous ways of thinking, and they have the potential to benefit California’s future immensely, if we choose to use them.

Big idea #1: The first Europeans to explore and settle in California found it to be awe-inspiring in its landscapes and impressively diverse and abundant in plant and animal life. They found what they thought was a wild, natural landscape and a small, inconsequential native human population. But in fact what they were seeing was a landscape that had been intensively managed and changed significantly by the indigenous people.

As Anderson illustrates, the thoughtful tending and use of California’s natural resources (plants in particular) by indigenous people actually “promot[ed] habitat heterogeneity, increas[ed] biodiversity, and maintain[ed] certain vegetation types that would otherwise have undergone successional change” (p.5). Indigenous Californians interacted so closely and purposefully with their natural resources that they changed the environment in ways that supported their lives here. An example is how native people used fire to maintain the coastal prairie environment that we now assume was always San Francisco’s landscape. (The use of fire is actually a key takeaway from the book.) They burned areas of prairie at a much higher frequency that would have occurred only with natural fires (since lightning is so rare here), in large part to maintain grazing land for large animals. The landscape would have been more treed if not for that practice.

Other examples illustrate the way indigenous resource management not only benefited the people involved, but the plants and other animals too. Seed beating was a common practice throughout California, that helped promote ongoing growth of certain plants over others. Seed beating meant hitting the seedy part of a grass or flower with a long-handled basket, to knock the ripe seeds off into another basket. People therefore harvested the ripest seeds for consumption, while also semi-unintentionally scattering some seeds in place and letting the unripe seeds stay on the plant to drop and germinate later. On a large scale, this practice changed plant populations – the tremendous wildflower fields witnessed by the first Europeans were a direct result of intentional propagation.

Big idea #2: We think of “wilderness” as land that is unspoiled by human presence and activity. But our vision of most wilderness in California is actually land that underwent these indigenous management techniques, and countless more, for thousands of years. Restoring our degraded habitats therefore can and should involve indigenous uses of the land. While our huge population certainly prevents us from returning to the full indigenous richness of the past in every corner of the state, the pervasiveness and positive impact of indigenous resource management through California’s history suggests that it should have a place in California’s future.

The first people of our modern day San Francisco managed, controlled, modified and tended plants and ecosystems for their day-to-day survival while we nurture garden plants for less immediately urgent needs. But with our changing climate and modern development causing mass extinctions of flora and fauna, and with chronic illnesses caused by sedentary, electronic-filled lives and poor diets, we may want to see our urban and suburban outdoor spaces differently. We may want to see these small areas as part of a bigger picture and learn how we can tend them carefully and knowledgeably like the first people in this area nurtured and tended their surroundings. Our goals and methods will be different than the people who preceded us, but our gentle care may turn out to be just as critical to our ultimate wellness.

 

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