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California Natural History and the Role of Naturalists
California is an incredible place to be a naturalist. For people who like to spend time outside, exploring unique places and sharing their favorite trail or rare species with others, the opportunities in California abound. The variety of landscapes provides diverse and unique living laboratories for aspiring naturalists. We have our nation's oldest lake, the lowest point, and the tallest trees, and seemingly endless opportunities for discovery, action, and stewardship. From discoveries in your own backyard to exploring the far corners of the state, California is an enticing mix of the commonplace and the unusual, where the ordinary is truly extraordinary.
California is one of the most diverse places on Earth. There are approximately 30,000 species of insects, 63 of freshwater fish, 46 amphibians, 96 reptiles, 563 birds, 190 mammals, and more than 8,000 plants, many of which are found only in California. Within the state lines, California has huge variations in topography and climate, with dramatic mountain ranges, valleys, and deserts where distinct natural communities have evolved. These variations result in 10 different bioregions, each with its characteristic drainages, topography, climate, and habitat types. California harbors such a wide variety of habitats and species that it is recognized as a global biodiversity hot spot.
Biodiversity is the diversity of life found at all hierarchical levels, from genes, species, and communities to entire ecosystems. In California, high levels of biodiversity are in evidence everywhere, from tiny mosses to giant redwoods to all the different genetic stocks of salmon runs that depend on coastal watershed communities. California has the largest number of endemic species of any state. Endemic is a term that indicates a species is uniquely found within a specific geographic range. A species can be endemic to Solano County, like the delta green ground beetle, which lives in Solano County and nowhere else on Earth. Another can be endemic to California, like the blue oak, which is widespread in California but grows in none of the other 49 states or on other continents. A species can be endemic to the New World, like the puma and the jaguar. On the other hand, some taxa are cosmopolitan. For example, the bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) can be found on all continents except Antarctica. In sum, endemic is usually used to refer to species that have limited geographic ranges.
California contains a variety of topographical and physical features that result in wide variation in temperature, rainfall, and soil type that has led to the evolution of species found nowhere else. These factors, coupled with its large size, result in the 10 distinct bioregions. Most other states are far more homogeneous and hence encompass fewer bioregions. Minnesota, for example, has only 3 bioregions. With so many unique species and different ecosystems, human-induced disturbance has broad implications for the flora and fauna of California. For example, when valley oak woodland is converted to a housing development, it can be difficult to find similar habitat nearby to substitute for what was lost. If the soils, slope, topography, temperature, and water availability are outside of the range tolerated by valley oak trees, then a valley oak woodland cannot be newly established. With valley oak woodlands occupying only a portion of their historical range, continued loss of these woodlands puts this natural community at risk.
THE BIODIVERSITY CRISIS
The global rate of species extinction is orders of magnitude higher today than it was before modern times. If the current rate of biodiversity loss continues, we will experience the most extreme extinction event of the past 65 million years.
Land-use change is the primary driver of habitat loss and ecosystem degradation, and it greatly exacerbates most of the other threats to the environment. Accelerated rates of land-use change are due to the fact that the world's human population has increased sevenfold since the 1800s, and the Earth has been transformed to accommodate our rising consumption of natural resources. The Wildlife Conservation Society calculated that the human footprint is detectable across 83 percent of the land area in the world, excluding Antarctica. A good example of what can result from extensive land-use change is Southern California, where as much as 90 percent of the historic riparian habitat has been lost to agriculture, urban development, flood control, and other alterations.
Synergistic effects between habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, and global warming can compound the effects of habitat loss on biodiversity and it is unclear whether or not species will be able to shift their geographical range or evolve new adaptations fast enough to survive climate change. The expected loss of species due to continued land-use change and global climate change will impact humans because we depend on the goods and services that natural ecosystems provide. Many of our medicines, food, and fiber—indeed, the basis for our economies and survival—come from plants and animals. Biodiversity and natural processes are responsible for what we need to live on Earth, such as maintaining air quality, soil productivity, and nutrient cycling; moderating climate; providing freshwater, food, and pollination services; breaking down pollutants and waste; and controlling parasites and diseases. These ecosystem services are divided into three different types by scientists. Products obtained from species and ecosystems, such as food, fiber, energy, and freshwater, are referred to as provisioning services; benefits obtained from ecosystem processes, such as the regulation of climate, water, and diseases, are referred to as regulating services; and last but equally important are cultural services, or the nonmaterial benefits people obtain from nature, such as spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, enjoyment, and aesthetic experiences.
Some scientists quantify these types of ecosystem services in financial terms. One study estimated that the Earth's biosphere provides 16 to 54 trillion US dollars worth of services per year that we currently do not pay for. While quantifying these ecosystem services does enlighten people to the importance of natural systems in their daily life, it is difficult to quantify the entire value to humans of each of the 10 to 30 million species inhabiting the Earth and all natural processes and ecosystem functions. The ecology of most species is unknown to us. Others are minute but play key roles in the functioning of natural communities and our own survival. For example, if it were not for a few kinds of microorganisms that can digest chitin, the shed exoskeletons of arthropods would bury the surface of the Earth.
While the interdependency of humans on other species and the ecosystem services that they provide people are important to recognize and provide strong justification for conservation, the intrinsic value of nature is equally important in motivating people to conserve resources and protect natural ecosystems. Habitat loss and extinction result in lost opportunities for personal inspiration and cultural enrichment, whether by bird-watching, catching and releasing wild salmon, or simply enjoying a natural scenic view. To really improve as stewards of the Earth, we need to acknowledge our interdependence with nature and our ethical and moral responsibility to prevent damage to the Earth's systems.
California, Hawaii, and Florida lead the nation in number of endangered species. Typically one of five of the species you will come to know in California has been declared endangered, threatened, or "of special concern" by agencies of the state and federal governments. Some of these species are protected under the federal and state Endangered Species Acts, which list species known to be in serious danger of becoming extinct and make it illegal to take or harm these species through habitat loss or degradation.
Humans have the intelligence to understand the impacts of our actions and change or modify our actions accordingly. The question is, can people continue to prosper while simultaneously minimizing our impact on other species on which we depend? Can we learn to conserve the ecological communities that we value? It is imperative that we do so, and soon.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF NATURAL HISTORY AND NATURALISTS
What is a naturalist? Today we define naturalists as people who observe, study, and interpret the natural world. Humans have always been scientists and natural historians by necessity. Just to survive we have had to observe, measure, speculate about, and communicate about the world. Indigenous people lived, and in some areas still live, deeply aware of their surrounding ecosystems, relying on observing, knowing, harvesting, and teaching about nature for survival. Hence they are the quintessential naturalists. The recorded history of the human enterprise is full of questioning, argument, and assertion about how the world operates. Every indigenous culture on Earth has explored the geography and ecology of its local environment. The knowledge of indigenous peoples is often astonishing in its breadth, detail, and accuracy. The drive to explore, understand, and utilize natural resources is a basic human trait. From the most seemingly depauperate oceanic atolls to the most diverse tropical rainforests, people around the world have discovered foods, medicines, poisons, and aesthetic appeals in the ecosystems they inhabit. That is the crux of being a naturalist: to observe the world, to report back to your fellow humans, and to protect the environment.
Traditional Ecological Knowledge
We had many relatives and we all had to live together, so we'd better learn how to get along with each other. She (my mother) said it wasn't too hard to do. It was just like taking care of your younger brother or sister. You got to know them, find out what they like and what made them cry, so you'd know what to do. If you took good care of them, you didn't have to work as hard. Sounds like it is not true but it is. When that baby gets to be a man or woman, they are going to help you out.
You know, I thought she was talking about us Indians and how we are supposed to get along. I found out later by my older sister that mother wasn't just talking about Indians, but the plants, animals, birds—everything on this earth. They are our relatives and we better know how to act around them or they'll get after us.
—Lucy Smith, Dry Creek Pomo
There are many ways of learning about the world, many ways of talking about the world, and many ways of thinking about the world. The Western scientific approach, where possible explanations for observations are proposed and then tested against evidence, is one way of increasing knowledge. Native peoples who have extensive experience of a place may use very different ways of gaining and passing on knowledge.
Native peoples all over the globe are expert naturalists with remarkable observations and insight into the natural processes, habitats, and organisms with whom they share a long history. The same is true of California native peoples, who have 10,000 or more years of experience observing, talking about, and depending on California's flora and fauna.
In Western tradition, knowledge is passed from generation to generation using the written word, often supplemented with images (drawings, paintings, photographs). Native Americans traditionally passed knowledge from generation to generation experientially and orally. A mother would take her daughter out to dig roots for basket making. The daughter would be in the habitat, feel the sand, sweat in the heat of the day, and struggle to pull the roots up. The mother might also talk about the activity, give verbal instruction about technique, or pass on customary knowledge associated with the experience. The words the daughter heard might be in the form of literal information or in a metaphoric form: a story, a song, a recollection, or a myth. The Pomo, for example, say that designs for baskets and other instructions are often transmitted through shared dreams.
The experiences and observations contained in what is called traditional ecological knowledge represent a wealth of information. Native Americans accumulated information about what plants and animals could be eaten, when they were available for harvest, and how they varied from season to season, as well as how to collect and process them. Native Americans passed along detailed ideas for habitat management, especially regarding the use of fire as a management tool to promote habitat diversity and to encourage the production of useful animals and plants. The legacy of traditional ecological knowledge includes observations and ideas that correspond neatly with Western knowledge, and may contain ideas or observations outside the realm of Western thought.
Traditional cultures often emphasize the interconnected relationships between humans and the natural world. In part this is because traditional foods and cultural practices rely on natural products that often can be harvested only from intact natural communities. Practices that tie people to the land form the basis for a strong sense of place and responsibility for the world around us. Plants, animals, and physical factors such as water and mountains are not seen as mere commodities for human use, but as sacred. Since nature has spirit, using natural resources is more of an exchange, so their philosophy is to take only what is needed and to honor what is taken. Many tribes have ceremonies, dances, and songs dedicated to the Earth's spirit that provides a bounty of acorns, strawberries, and salmon.
The way that native people obtain goods and use services provided by ecosystems is often more sustainable than the way Western cultures tend to exploit natural resources. There are many examples of native Californians managing nature to be more productive. Examples are distributing bulbs while harvesting, and plucking grasses rather than uprooting them. This demonstrates another important lesson from native people, which is that managing natural resources can help preserve them for future generations. Ancient practices have proven to be beneficial today for native plant restoration and regeneration efforts to enhance biodiversity across many habitat types. After all, California Indians have been nurturing native plants for thousands of years. The long history of native people in California had an important role in shaping the natural communities we see today.
The use of fire is one area where Native Americans in California had a highly developed and nuanced understanding. Native Californians used fire to drive and concentrate game, to open paths for travel, to alter habitat mosaics, to protect against enemies, and to safeguard villages from fire, as well as to promote the growth of desirable plants and to stimulate the production of specific plant parts. The Pomo burned certain chaparral stands to stimulate coppice growth (resprouting) of redbud (Cercis occidentalis). This resulted in the new growth of long redbud stems which were valued for design elements in Pomo coiled baskets.
It is important to keep in mind that native Californians represent a huge variety of culture and language stemming from 500 relatively small tribal groups. Once again California trumps many other places with its diversity—in this case, historical cultural diversity. Even groups with the same name often varied widely. For example, the Pomo spoke at least seven distinct languages that are thought to share a common origin. In addition to this incredible diversity, California supported the highest density of native people north of Mexico in pre-Columbian times. The rapid and devastating loss of the 300,000 or more California Indians started in 1769 with the first Spanish colonists and accelerated as the missions were established and Westerners arrived seeking timber, gold, and fertile farmland, and at the same time bringing new diseases to the region. The existing scholarship, artifacts, and overall body of work that we have to draw on cannot possibly capture all we would like to know about this rich history. Thanks to the efforts of many California tribes, today many important traditions and practices survive within native communities.
Though this book takes a Western scientific approach to looking at California natural history, we draw inspiration from traditional ecological knowledge and the reverence for natural processes that are embodied in that tradition.
WHY BE A NATURALIST?
Naturalists are generalists in the best sense—cross-disciplinary, with knowledge of a system as a whole, not just the pieces. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, before the formal fields of ecology, entomology, geology, zoology, and others emerged, it was naturalists who undertook these sciences. They collected specimens, recorded their observations, and became experts in certain habitats or species. Their work and collections were central to the origins of natural history museums and to the development of the theoretical underpinnings of current scientific thought. This connection is still vital today; naturalists form a key link between common and scientific understanding. By becoming a naturalist, you are taking a place in an important tradition of knowledge keepers. Naturalists make the world accessible to all and bring out our interest in and wonder at nature.
Excerpted from The California Naturalist Handbook by Greg de Nevers, Deborah Stanger Edelman, Adina M. Merenlender. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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