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Tending the Wild
Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural Resources
By M. Kat Anderson
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2005 M. Kat Anderson
All rights reserved.
Wildlife, Plants, and People
No country in the world was as well supplied by Nature, with food for man, as California, when first discovered by the Spaniards. Every one of its early visitors have left records to this effect—they all found its hills, valleys and plains filled with elk, deer, hares, rabbits, quail, and other animals fit for food; its rivers and lakes swarming with salmon, trout, and other fish, their beds and banks covered with mussels, clams, and other edible mollusca; the rocks on its sea shores crowded with seal and otter; and its forests full of trees and plants, bearing acorns, nuts, seeds and berries.
TITUS FEY CRONISE, The Natural Wealth of California (1868)
California is a land of superlatives. It has the highest mountain peaks, the largest, oldest, and tallest trees, the rivers of the greatest variety, and the most diverse Indian tribes found in the coterminous United States. California harbors the smallest bird on the continent north of Mexico, the calliope hummingbird (Stellula calliope), and the largest flying bird, the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus). From the summit of Telescope Peak in the Panamint Range, one can face east to see the lowest point on the American continent, in Death Valley, and then turn around to gaze at the highest point of land in the United States outside of Alaska, the summit of Mount Whitney, 14,501 feet above sea level.
Not unlike that of an isolated island, the plants, animals, landscapes, and native peoples of California have a distinctness and unusual diversity that casts them apart from the rest of the mainland. This was apparent to every European visitor during the period of early exploration. One-third of the state's 6,300 native plant species are endemics and grow nowhere else on earth. It has nineteen of the ninety oak (Quercus) species that grow in the United States. And it contains nearly all of the world's approximately sixty species of manzanitas (Arctostaphylos spp.) and forty-three of the forty-five species of California-lilacs (Ceanothus spp.).
In 1542 one hundred languages resonated across California's myriad landscapes—one quarter of the 418 native languages that existed within the borders of the present-day United States. Alfred Kroeber, the father of California anthropology, split the state into six major Native American culture areas, which reflect the state's tremendous variety of lifestyles. The archaeologist Michael Moratto states, "Such cultural, linguistic, and biological variations bespeak a long and rich prehistory in this part of the Far West."
Early European explorers and settlers were universally impressed not just by California's diversity but also by the sheer abundance of its wildlife. Jean- François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse, a French seafarer, described California in 1786 as a land of "inexpressible fertility." He and others were taken with the prodigious congregations of wildlife: rookeries of seals, shoals of fish, pods of whales, flocks of birds, and herds of pronghorn antelope. The immense numbers of tule elk in the Central Valley, for example, rivaled ungulate numbers in Africa's Serengeti.
Thomas Jefferson Mayfield, a white man who came to live with the Choynumni Yokuts in the San Joaquin Valley in the 1850s when just a boy, vividly described this overflowing abundance of wildlife: "Thousands of bandtail pigeons" came "in flights that would sometimes shut out the sun like a cloud. They piled into the nearest trees until there was not a single place for another pigeon to sit."
Padre Pedro Muñoz, a member of Gabriel Moraga's Spanish military expedition through the San Joaquin Valley in 1806, observed thousands of California tortoise-shell butterflies (Nymphalis californica) on September 27, possibly at what is now Mariposa Creek, and jotted in his diary: "This place is called [the place] of the mariposas [butterflies] because of their great multitude, especially at night and morning.... One of the corporals of the expedition got one in his ear, causing him considerable annoyance and no little discomfort in its extraction."
James Carson, a sergeant in the U.S. Army, wrote of the biological wealth of the Tulare Plains in the Great Central Valley between 1846 and 1852: "[S]wan, geese, brant, and over twenty different descriptions of ducks ... cover the plains and waters in countless myriads from the first of October until the first of April, besides millions of grocus [sandhill cranes], plover, snipe and quail. The rivers are filled with fish of the largest and most delicious varieties, and the sportsman and epicurean can find on the Tulares everything their hearts can desire." By the mid- to late 1800s, dozens of travel guides were written to attract new settlers to California, including Felix Paul Wierzbicki's 1849 book, California: A Guide to the Gold Region, and Charles Nordhoff's California: A Book for Travellers and Settlers, published in 1873. The alluring descriptions were designed to captivate the newcomer eager for a fresh start in life. But in many cases the advertisements were not exaggerated, because the truth worked just as well.The Americanborn traveler and writer Bayard Taylor wrote his fiancée from California in 1849:
I cannot express to thee how I have been charmed with this country. Its pure, cloudless sky; its spring-like airs, always filled with the odor of balmy shrubs and grasses; its vast plains that stretch away like seas with forest islands and shores; its mountain ranges, which the wild oat cover with cloth of gold and which loom through the violet haze; its deep-cloven ravines, its shores and sparkling seas impress me like some new-created world.
Early California was a massive flower garden. John Muir dubbed the state "the Pacific land of flowers," and he compared the frothy white flowers in the Sierra foothills to "patches of unmelted snow" and the wavy hills of yellow composites to "abundant, divine, gushing, living plant gold, forming the most glowing landscape the eye of man can behold." These densely growing native wildflowers and grasses of hundreds of varieties such as brodiaeas, yampah, mule ears, farewell-to-springs, lilies, balsam root, tarweeds, evening primroses, wild ryes, deergrass, and California bromes at one time covered large areas of ground not just in open grasslands but also in the open understory of California's coniferous forests, oak woodlands, chaparral, and pinyon-juniper forests, forming the bulk of the plant diversity in these communities. (See Figure 2.)
The goldfields (Lasthenia californica) were among the first wildflowers to appear in large, dense carpets in grasslands and open woodlands. Red maids (Calandrinia ciliata) were common throughout the state in the lower elevations, forming battalions of magenta pink. Charles Greene spotted red maids along with other wildflowers in the San Joaquin Valley and published this species account in 1892: "Eschscholtzias [sic] flamed in places, and nemophilae repeated the blue of the skies. Mallows and calendrinias [sic] made more beautiful red on the sod than we had been looking upon; and besides these there were a multitude more of flowers, red and white, and yellow and blue." Central Valley farmers still find red maids in their agricultural fields—but their status has changed; they are listed in Weeds of the West.
Masses of fragrant blue lupines (Lupinus nanus, L. bicolor, and L. micranthus) and California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) were particularly notable, as they blanketed hills and valleys through large portions of the state. Blue and gold, the colors of the University of California, are said to have been chosen originally because of the great abundance of blue lupines and golden poppies in the vicinity of the first campus in Berkeley, founded in 1868.
California poppies set a tilted mesa north of Pasadena aglow with their blooms in spring, serving as a beacon to ships more than twenty-five miles away. Seeing hillsides covered with these flowers, early Spanish explorers named the coast "the Land of Fire," appropriate in a literal as well as a figurative sense because of the hot, arid summers and the frequency of fires ignited by lightning strikes.
The Role of Natural Disturbance
According to the plant ecologist Michael Barbour, "Late summer and early fall fires were an expected natural event in many California vegetation types below six thousand feet elevation.The same acre of ground could be expected to burn every ten to fifty years. Fire was uncommon only in deserts and at high elevations. California plants evolved with fire as a natural environmental factor over millions of years. As a result, not only do many California species survive fires, but some require fire in order to complete their life cycle or to remain vigorous" (pers. comm. 2004). The ecologist Richard Vogl has postulated that fire helped to shape three-fourths of California's vegetation.
Carl Purdy, an astute horticulturist, made the connection between wildflower abundance and fire in his description of a stagecoach ride from Petaluma to Ukiah in 1870: "The trip was through lovely country, at its loveliest in mid-May. Brush fires had kept the hillsides open, cultivation did not cover much of the land, and we passed through a long succession of wild flower gardens. There were masses of a single flower covering acres, or even at times, hundreds of acres. This wonderful flower show was surpassed only by that vast one that John Muir described as adorning all of the uplands of the great interior valleys of the San Joaquin and Sacramento. That was a circuit of a thousand miles of bloom. Now, one has to go clear to the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley to see any spring flower show that is at all comparable."
Fire was not the only natural occurrence shaping the landscape. Spring floods scoured watercourses and deposited silt, small and large mammals dug in the soil, storms felled trees, and torrential rains caused landslides. Each of these common events is known by plant ecologists as a natural disturbance, defined as "any relatively discrete event in time that disrupts ecosystem, community, or population structure and changes resources, substrate availability, or the physical environment." Having evolved with these erratic or episodic perturbations, many plant species not only tolerate them, but require them to complete their life cycles or to maintain dominance.
Ecological studies from all over the world, in both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, bear out the important ecological role of disturbance in the development and maintenance of forest, shrubland, grassland, and wetland habitats. In many instances, moderate to medium disturbance promotes habitat heterogeneity and allows for greater diversity of plants and animals. For example, small mammal activity increases the abundance and diversity of geophytes (perennials with bulbs, corms, or tubers); wave action contributes to biodiversity in the rocky intertidal zone; fires maintain biologically rich grasslands; and the alternate filling and draining of lakes, marshes, and estuaries supports vast populations of aquatic life and waterfowl. Some scientists suggest that pyrodiversity (the diversity in frequency, scale, season, and type of fire) leads to great biodiversity of plant species and vegetation types.
Disturbance is a recurrent feature of virtually every vegetation type in California. In fact, it is now accepted that perturbations are required for the rejuvenation of many plant populations and ecosystems. According to a hypothesis put forth by the ecologist Joseph Connell, disturbances that occur at intermediate intensities and frequencies promote the greatest biological diversity.
Many perennial species have underground or otherwise protected organs that enable them to regenerate and spread after the aboveground parts are burned, grazed by herbivores, disrupted by landslides, or moved by digging rodents. Through the process of vegetative reproduction, they can multiply their parts or create replicas of themselves. Many shrubs and trees, for example, can resprout from suppressed epicormic or adventitious buds along their trunks or roots. Sometimes these new shoots arise on shrubs from large, gnarly underground burls, particularly after a fire. This adaptation is referred to as crown-sprouting, and it is characteristic of many chaparral shrubs. Some plants—ferns, sedges, cattails, tules, rushes, certain grasses, milkweeds, and dogbanes—die back to woody roots each year and arise anew the next year. They send out horizontal stems under the ground, or rhizomes, that enable the plants to survive and reestablish themselves and even expand the portion of the site they occupy. Still other perennials have bulbs or corms that produce offsets—tiny bulblets or cormlets containing the beginnings of a new plant genetically identical to the parent—that are spread more readily when disturbed.
The California encountered by the Portuguese explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo in 1542, the English explorer Sir Francis Drake in 1579, and the Franciscan missionary Junípero Serra in 1769 was an altogether different place from their tamed European homelands. Much of Europe had already been ecologically degraded centuries before, its wildlands deforested, mined, and overgrazed by goats, sheep, and cattle. California, in contrast, was not a human-dominated landscape; its sights, sounds, and smells dwarfed Europeans and put them in awe of nature's grand show.The animals often took center stage: the large mayfly swarms hovering over streams in springtime, the orange-black clouds of hundreds of thousands of monarch butterflies in autumn, or the harsh "wah" calls of a hundred thousand white-fronted geese in winter could hardly go unnoticed.
Grizzly bears (Ursus arctos), the largest of California's terrestrial mammals, historically ranged from Siskiyou and Humboldt Counties in northern California to San Diego County in the south, at least two-thirds of the state. John Bidwell spotted a group of sixteen grizzlies in the Sacramento Valley in 1841 and said "grizzly bears were almost an hourly sight, in the vicinity of the streams, and it was not uncommon to see thirty to forty a day." The grizzly bear population has been estimated at ten thousand, or one every fifteen square miles. Many California place-names reflect the former abundance of bears: Bear Valley on Highway 4 above Arnold, and Bear Creek Gulch in San Mateo County, for example. Many bear trails crisscrossed chaparral thickets, and numerous tracks could be seen at springs. Large paths worn half a foot below the surface of the earth appeared in the alluvium of flat valleys. Grizzly bears would come down to the coast at night and feast on beached whales.
As many as half a million tule elk (Cervus elaphus nannodes) fed on the lush grasses and forbs of the valley grassland. Herds as large as one thousand to three thousand were reported. Historically, tule elk in central California ranged over the entire San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys and adjacent foothills and through the Livermore and Sunol Valleys across to the Santa Clara Valley. Don Sebastin Vizcaíno spotted abundant tule elk when he landed at Monterey on December 10, 1602. In 1848 the traveler James Lynch witnessed the San Joaquin plains covered with tule elk "as far as the eye could reach." The animals' heads rose in surprise at the approach of his regiment, and the multitude of horns reminded him of a "young forest." Edward Bosqui spotted tule elk between Merced and Stockton and said, "At times we saw bands of elk, deer and antelope in such numbers that they actually darkened the plains for miles, and looked in the distance like great herds of cattle." During the Gold Rush, well after the first European settlement, elk might be seen in bands of forty or fifty, grazing on the edge of the marshes, near Stockton. Their whistles could be heard nearly a mile away.
Pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) were common in the Central Valley from at least the Sutter Buttes southward to the desert, and there were many thousands of antelope in what are today Los Angeles and Orange Counties. The Spanish soldier Pedro Fages, during his inland exploration of the country between Monterey and the head of the Bay of San Francisco in November 1770, jotted in his diary: "We crossed it [probably Santa Clara Valley] at a cost of three leagues' [march], seeing on the way many herds of antelopes, some of them exceeding fifty." In 1874 John Muir wrote, "The antelope is quite abundant in the plains and open timber to the north of Shasta. One of the fleetest and most graceful of all wild animals, he ranges not only the open valleys but the pine woods, and feeds upon grasses. In flocks of a hundred or more they are still seen almost any day by the vaqueros of the region."
Excerpted from Tending the Wild by M. Kat Anderson. Copyright © 2005 M. Kat Anderson. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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