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Our Better Nature: Environment and the Making of San Francisco

Our Better Nature: Environment and the Making of San Francisco

by Phillip J Dreyfus

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Few cities are so dramatically identified with their environment as San Francisco—the landscape of hills, the expansive bay, the engulfing fog, and even the deadly fault line shifting below. Yet most residents think of the city itself as separate from the natural environment on which it depends. In Our Better Nature, Philip J. Dreyfus recounts the


Few cities are so dramatically identified with their environment as San Francisco—the landscape of hills, the expansive bay, the engulfing fog, and even the deadly fault line shifting below. Yet most residents think of the city itself as separate from the natural environment on which it depends. In Our Better Nature, Philip J. Dreyfus recounts the history of San Francisco from Indian village to world-class metropolis, focusing on the interactions between the city and the land and on the generations of people who have transformed them both. Dreyfus examines the ways that San Franciscans remade the landscape to fit their needs, and how their actions reflected and affected their ideas about nature, from the destruction of wetlands and forests to the creation of Golden Gate and Yosemite parks, the Sierra Club, and later, the birth of the modern environmental movement.

Today, many San Franciscans seek to strengthen the ties between cities and nature by pursuing more sustainable and ecologically responsible ways of life. Consistent with that urge, Our Better Nature not only explores San Francisco’s past but also poses critical questions about its future. Dreyfus asks us to reassess our connection to the environment and to find ways to redefine ourselves and our cities within nature. Only with such an attitude will San Francisco retain the magic that has always charmed residents and visitors alike.

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University of Oklahoma Press
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6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

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Our Better Nature

Environment and the Making of San Francisco

By Philip J. Dreyfus


Copyright © 2008 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-3958-6


Coyote's Children

On October 6, 1812, in Cádiz, Spain, Don Ciríaco González Carvajal, secretary of the Department of Overseas Colonies, penned an order to the viceroys of New Spain. The monarchy wished to gather, in regards to its distant possessions, "the knowledge and information [necessary] for [the] impartial guidance, rule and administration of [its] subjects." Not coincidentally, Mexico had already set out on the decade-long course of rebellion that culminated in its independence, and officials of the mother country experienced some urgency in gauging the efficacy of their colonial enterprise. While Don Ciríaco addressed his message to both the civil and ecclesiastical authorities, in California it was the priests who shouldered the burden of response.

At Mission San Francisco de Asís on November 11, 1814, Fray Ramón Abella concluded and signed his respuestas and forwarded them to Fray José Señán at Mission San Buenaventura, where their trip home ended due to the disruptions of war. Fray Abella, like the other mission priests, had few Spanish subjects to describe but for the Indios. Although he dedicated his life to molding his "benighted" flock into proper and civilized Christians, and he knew his Indian "children" fairly well, he seemed neither to understand nor to respect them. Thirty-eight years had passed since the establishment of the mission, but the essential character of the native population appeared to him unchanged. Fray Abella reproached, "Everything that requires labor they naturally shun." The priest's premise was remarkable—had the Indians really managed to survive for centuries in this place by avoiding work? This is inconceivable. Yet to Fray Abella, their activities in a natural state were too insignificant to qualify as labor. Abella evinced a perspective on the environmental role of human beings that was embedded in the culture of modern Europeans but that was not shared by the native peoples of California, who had always worked, but differently. The distinctions between the two peoples' ways of being in nature were at the crux of the transformative role of Spanish colonization. The needs of empire were straightforward—control and production—but to accomplish these goals it was necessary to reorder nature, both human and nonhuman, by reorganizing work. This reorganization involved a dramatic complex of interrelated social, technological, biotic, demographic, and ideological changes. One can only grasp the enormity of these changes by appreciating, as Fray Abella did not, what the natives had made of their world in the first place. This requires us to step back to the mid-eighteenth century, to the moment of Spanish contact with the natives.

Imagine standing on a clear day at the nine-hundred-foot summit of one of the Twin Peaks, near the geographic center of today's city of San Francisco. If, from that lofty perch, one could look two and a half centuries into the past, the city would melt away, yielding to grasslands, sand dunes, rolling hills, marshes, precipitous cliffs where the Pacific crashes against headlands, and the occasional stream wending its way to the vast blue expanse of bay. Acuity of vision, or a good pair of binoculars, would then afford a sight of a different sort. Due east in the valley of Mission Creek, today flowing through a culvert and buried out of sight, were human habitations—Sitlintac and Chutchui. Two miles to the southeast in Visitacion Valley lay the villages of Amuctac and Tubsinte, and off to the northwest stood Petlenuc, not far from the Golden Gate. The Yelamu made their homes in these settlements and, from them, linked their lives by marriage and trade to other proximate Ohlone, or Costanoan, people on the east side of the bay and on the peninsula to the south. The inhabitants of those villages were people like ourselves, busy with love and hate and wonder, and with the workaday routines designed to keep themselves fed and comfortable, but they approached all of these things differently.

The Yelamu were a subset of a human population that for thousands of years had fanned out across the landscape of west-central California. The Yelamu ended up in what is now San Francisco. Who were they? While it is tempting, for simplicity's sake, to speak of a Native American way of life, the reality of human experience in the Americas prior to European contact is more complex. This is especially evident in California, where eighty different native languages and dialects were spoken in an area comprising only 5 percent of the modern United States. For convenience of study, tribe has come to be identified with language, and the Yelamu were one of many bands of Costanoan speakers. However, the inference that one might then draw regarding group identity is false. Five languages were spoken in the San Francisco Bay region alone—Coast Miwok, north of the Golden Gate; Pomo, for a dozen miles north and south of the Russian River; Wappo, in the areas surrounding the Napa River valley; Patwin and Bay Miwok, respectively north and south of Suisun Bay and the Sacramento River Delta; and, finally, the most widely spoken, Ohlone, or Costanoan, on the San Francisco peninsula and for five to fifty miles outward on radial lines reaching from the bay shore. Each language group comprised numerous independent, often competitive, and sometimes hostile groups. The existence of these significant linguistic variations within a distance now easily traveled in two to three hours by car therefore falls short of accurately portraying the area's diversity of native experiences, identities, and loyalties.

California's greatly varied climatic and topographical characteristics, so appealing to travelers today, yielded a variety of cultural adaptations by its earliest human inhabitants. Specific and narrow ecological niches shaped native economies, and highly localized familial bonds shaped native political and social structures. Environmental setting did not correlate precisely to language, but was probably a significant determinant of distinctions between human groups. The San Francisco Bay region's tidal wetlands, estuaries, hills, grasslands, riparian woods, forests, coastal ridges, escarpments, and rocky oceanic shoals offered a broad range of sustenance around which human social life could revolve. Where people lived and what they made of it played a large role in defining whom they were and how they in turn defined who constituted "others." Certainly, resource-based micro-regionalism was reflected in the tendency of tribes and tribelets to refer to themselves as "the people," and to others as "those from north of here," or some other such self-referential term. The relative isolation and independence of small kinship groups and villages of a few dozen to a few hundred persons is largely unimaginable to most of us in today's small world. The Yelamu, for example, probably numbered no more than two hundred persons at the time of Spanish contact. Three bands of Yelamu families shared the northern peninsula. One band moved seasonally between the Visitacion Valley settlements of Amuctac and Subsinte; another did the same in the Mission Creek villages of Sitlintac and Chutchui; and the third occupied the Golden Gate beachheads at Petlenuc. Yet their isolation, independence, and localism were not absolute. Kinship ties linked the Yelamu bands to one another as well as to the Huchiuns across the bay where Berkeley is now and to the families at Pruristac, near today's fog capital of Pacifica. All of these groups were Costanoan speakers whose spatial separation was a necessary adaptation to the limits of territorial resources. Separation ensured sustainability, and intercommunal marriage promoted trade, while access to a broader range of ecological niches, when politically possible, facilitated the food quest.

Native Americans could count on perhaps five hundred different plant and animal foods within the current borders of California. Of course, since these were not distributed evenly, but varied with geography and climate, natives created distinct alimentary cultures suited to their group's habitual territory and migratory range. The people of the San Francisco Bay area, including the Yelamu, were principally coastal tideland collectors and foothill hunters and gatherers. The bay shoreline and rocky coastal shoals yielded an abundance of shellfish. Blue mussels, California oysters, and bent-nosed clams were good sources of protein, as were the deer, elk, bear, and rabbit that inhabited local grasslands and chaparral.

The significance of shellfish to the Ohlone diet is evident in the size and number of shell mounds surrounding the San Francisco Bay, of which one notable example lies just south of Islais Creek within the modern boundaries of the city of San Francisco, not far from the Yelamu sites in Mission Valley. Almost a century ago, before much of today's familiar waterfront landfill and development occurred, archeologists had identified no fewer than 425 such sites. Their original number might even have exceeded that figure, as nineteenth-century agriculture and ranching, as well as the natural effects of tidal action, probably took their toll. There is today some controversy regarding the function of these vestiges of ancient human activity. Generally, the mounds have been viewed as remnant villages or seasonal habitations, kitchen middens, or garbage dumps—functional reminders that filling the belly is a primary human activity. More recently, native descendants, self-identified or reconstituted tribal entities, and their legal advocates and supporters have stressed the ceremonial and sacred purpose of the mounds as formal cemeteries and cremation sites for elite and distinguished members of Ohlone society. Regardless, it is evident that huge quantities of shellfish were consumed or prepared for consumption at these locations. A substantial accumulation of clam and mussel shells rests at Ellis Landing near Richmond on the east shore of the bay. A settlement the size of which probably never exceeded a hundred souls produced this one-and-a-quarter-million-cubic-foot mound over a period of two thousand to four thousand years by consuming an unfathomable eight billion mussels and half a billion clams. Considering the size and apparent age of the shell mounds, evidence of the scale of human habitation, and assumptions regarding dietary needs, archaeologists guess that natives of the bay shore regions ate about fifty mussels per person per day, along with a couple of the more labor-intensive clams, which had to be dug up rather than merely gathered. Although mollusks were less protein-rich than terrestrial and sea mammals, Native Californians ate a wide variety of foods, including plant products, which, taken together, yielded an adequate diet.

Despite the high degree of organizational and territorial independence maintained by native communities, food provided a principal motive for contact and interaction between groups. On that score, perhaps a quarter of the shell mound deposits represent export trade to the interior. Costanoans carried dried mollusk meats especially in trading expeditions to the territory of the Yokuts people of the San Joaquin Valley, who exchanged these for local pine nuts. The Yelamu may also have acted as middlemen for the easterly trade of coastal shells and north coast obsidian. Because we modern folk have conceived of the great bay of San Francisco as the hub of a national and global trade network since at least the mid-nineteenth century, it would be proper to recognize that some of our "improvements" have been in scope rather than in kind. Trade has always played a significant role in the lives of the region's inhabitants, but in earlier times the concentric rings formed by the spokes of export trails were of necessity far smaller on account of the technical limits of production and transportation.

A fundamental difference from our time, however, was the absence of commoditization. The most prevalent type of trade was a direct barter of items considered of roughly equal value, and most such goods were judged on their subsistence merits. Natives also on occasion sold or leased usufruct rights from one another on a communal basis, establishing reciprocity in, literally, the "use of the fruit" of the land in a mutually beneficial fashion. These forms of exchange were, of course, only useful in situations of resource dissimilarity and therefore occurred across environmental settings. It is worth noting here as well that while topographic barriers limited trade, thereby promoting exchange between proximate neighbors, long distance trade was also restricted because tribes were generally loath to launch expeditions across one another's territories. Food could be as much a source of friction and warfare as a source of cooperation and trade. Only the fearsome Mohave of the South and Modoc of the North passed with impunity through the territories of others in a world where the loss of one man in battle would, among most tribes, be sufficient to bring a general retreat. And while presumed shamanistic malevolence—the casting of spells resulting in misfortune or disease—frequently caused warfare, territorial encroachments arising from food collection were a more material root of conflict.

While food sources might vary widely from environment to environment, as between the Pacific coast and the Sierras, others were fairly universal. Much has been made, for example, of the California Indians' great affection for the acorn. Even the shellfish eaters of San Francisco Bay depended on this bitter fruit of the oak tree, but here the Yelamu may have been at a disadvantage. Eons of drifting sand produced an unusually sparse landscape between the bay and the sea. The virtually constant Pacific breezes that provide natural air-conditioning to the city today have been blowing immeasurable quantities of sand eastward from the beaches since long before the arrival of human beings. The entire northern peninsula is consequently one huge sand drift of varying depths, punctuated by the occasional rocky outcroppings we now refer to as Mt. Davidson, Mt. Sutro, Twin Peaks, the smaller Nob and Russian Hills, and so on. One should imagine a primeval landscape of far more precipitous heights and far deeper valleys, all filled in, smoothed out, and softened by sweeping sand. The power of the wind and the passage of time left very few places untouched, from the gently rising slope of our Sunset and Richmond districts to the low-lying downtown areas occupied by the Civic Center and Market Street. Today's city hall, over five miles from the ocean and thankfully sheltered from the full force of the wind, sits on eighty feet of sand. While in modern urban usage these sandscapes pose engineering challenges, in pre-urban times they presented problems of sustenance. Contemporary University of California soil studies confirm this in identifying essentially two soil types within the city limits. The western two-thirds of the city consists of acidic, sandy, wind-modified soil that normally sustains some clump grasses and scrub, while the eastern third contains more clay and is more amenable to grassland and chaparral. There was therefore a natural logic to the small number of Yelamu and to their preference for settling on the eastern, or bay side, of the peninsula. The few relatively small creeks were there, supporting a greater variety of flora and fauna than the western sections but, unfortunately, only small oak groves.

Perhaps transbay marriages like that of the mission-era Yelamu headman Guimas to two Huchiun women helped provide access to the oaks of what is now Oakland. Quercus kelloggii and Quercus lobata, the California black oak and the valley oak, were both hardy natives of Costanoan territory. Their acorns were good sources of fat, fiber, and carbohydrates, with small amounts of vegetable protein. Oaks generated fruit so prolifically that balanophagy—the consumption of acorns—must be considered one of the most logical and effective human uses of California's native landscape. During the bearing season, average acorn production per tree averages from two hundred to five hundred pounds for the black and valley oaks, making one grove of trees sufficient to nourish an entire village. The only significant variable that human beings had to take into account was the bearing cycle of the trees. Black oaks, for example, bear well every other year, while valley oaks are especially fruitful one year in three. Native Californians, whose lives were directly tied to subsistence from a minimally reordered natural world, learned by keen observation to collect enough acorns in one year to last a family for two. This wise practice did not place too onerous a burden on annual labor but did require rather consistent effort over a couple of weeks, during which dawn-to-dusk collection was the rule. Dutiful application of a family's energy might well yield ten to twenty tons of acorns over the short harvest season, explaining the presence of granaries as prominent structures in Indian villages.


Excerpted from Our Better Nature by Philip J. Dreyfus. Copyright © 2008 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Philip J. Dreyfus is Associate Professor of History at San Francisco State University. He has received numerous awards for his classroom teaching, and his writings have appeared in various academic journals.

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