Tag: Environment


How a Mid-Century LA Environmentalist Got Beyond John Muir

by Christopher Sellers

As the centenary of John Muir’s death in Los Angeles approaches on December 24, the inevitable outpourings of praise need to be tempered with both historical awareness and wariness.

Muir’s legacy runs to the heart of why Americans have had such trouble caring for nature in the places we actually inhabit. Extolling the High Sierra, Muir taught his readers and followers to appreciate a nature that could be truly found only in the most pristine of places, where the human hand seemed lightest.

Photo from the Richard Gordon Lillard papers, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Photo from the Richard Gordon Lillard papers, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Yet our biggest environmental problems have long lain not in places like Yosemite, but where human hands appear far more dominant, and nature itself is much harder to see. Muir’s legacy has often impeded our inclination and ability to heed ecological realities that are neither so pristine nor so grandiose, but that thread through our society and our lives. And so Muir’s legacy is inevitably being questioned on this centennial.

But there are other, earlier precedents for productively re-examining Muir’s relevance. The modern environmental movement, which took off after World War II in California as elsewhere, was often concerned with places that were far more populous and built up—suburbs and cities in particular—than Muir’s beloved Sierra.

For at least one prominent mid-century California environmentalist, caring for these places required overcoming Muir’s legacy. Richard Lillard was an English professor and author of Eden in Jeopardy: Man’s Prodigal Meddling with His Environment: The Southern California Experience, published in 1966, and the closest thing Southern California had in those years to an environmental prophet. A Muir acolyte when he first arrived in Los Angeles in the mid-1940’s, Lillard never would have written his seminal book had he remained so.

At first, following Muir, Lillard abandoned the city whenever he could, spending his summers as a “naturalist” guide in Yosemite, and even holding his wedding in its outdoor “cathedral.” His tune changed while living in a house he had bought in 1947 in a canyon of the Santa Monica Mountains, close enough to the downtown to lie within the city limits of Los Angeles.

In search of a conservation that was more personal and “deeply lived,” Lillard got to know the natural world that lay around his own house. That growing acquaintance became central to his transformation. He “lovingly raised” his own home garden, and turned a keen eye to the local wildlife, even the weeds. When a disastrous flood and mudslide struck his and his neighbors’ homes, he launched into local politics, reviving a homeowners’ association that pushed city hall for tighter rules on hillside homebuilding.

Soon thereafter, writing in his private journal, he rankled at Muir’s legacy. Muir’s admirers, he decided, were “socially immature.” He affirmed instead the inspiration of a Thoreau or Andre Gide who “balance … things well”—the “humane world…of private love and public causes” alongside “the nature he makes his setting.” Part of the reason was that the place Lillard now lived in and cared for faced threats that Muir had never contemplated, threats more associated with suburbs or cities than with wilderness. The great contribution of Eden in Jeopardy was to highlight these threats across Southern California: the heedless paving of roads and rivers, the haphazard raising of roofs across valleys and farmland, the hurdling of tons of smoke and hydrocarbons into the Los Angeles basin’s air.

Lillard’s experience mirrored that of the group owing the most to Muir’s legacy, the Sierra Club. As late as 1955, it remained a small group centered on the West Coast and hewing closely to Muir’s vision. Sponsored trips exposed a membership mostly from cities and suburbs to the transcendent nature of the Sierras. Its political agenda remained confined to protecting the remote federal preserves where much of America’s wilderness could be found.

Only after the club began to take on more urban and suburban issues—not before—did the Sierra Club’s roster soar. Its causes expanded in ways that would have utterly puzzled Muir himself. By the early 1960’s, the Los Angeles Chapter had begun lobbying against the county’s dumps, pushing for a public preserve in the Santa Monica Mountains, and for protection of far less pristine parks in Boyle Heights and elsewhere downtown.

Where the Muir tradition most hobbled the Sierra Club from endorsing Lillard’s broader agenda was over environmental threats to human health. Enraptured by the High Sierra, Muir and his disciples mythologized their own strenuous and daring exertions across them. Rarely did they consider how vulnerable to these or any other surroundings human beings could be. Yet that was precisely the message hammered home by post-war environmentalists such as Lillard and Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring, published in 1962, emphasized that human-made chemicals such pesticides did not just threaten birds and wildlife but people too.

Los Angeles’ worsening smog offered one of the nation’s earliest and gravest instances of how bad the most modern versions of pollution could become. Yet for decades, the Angeleno chapter of the Sierra Club shied away from regional political battles over smog. Only in the late 1960’s did they join in, after Lillard and many others had argued for smog’s relevance to ecological advocacy.

A century out from Muir’s death, humanity’s mounting influence on the planet, and what we now know about that influence, have made a truly pristine nature ever more difficult, even impossible, to find. No place on earth stays untouched by a phenomenon like climate change. To be sure, we still need our Yosemites, not least for the transcendent encounters that Muir and his descendants have helped us to find in them. Yet in a time when human impacts have turned planetary in scale, the project of protecting our wildest places has become far more bound up with what we do in our cities, suburbs, and factories than Muir ever imagined.

More than ever, we also need precedents like Lillard’s: ways we may see, appreciate and protect the natural world in those places where most of us live our lives, but where nature itself sometimes seems far more difficult to find.

Christopher Sellers is the author of Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in 20th-Century America, and a professor of history at Stony Brook University.


Photograph at top by Ken Kanouse via Flickr.


Island Time

by Peter S. Alagona

On the stories we tell about nature and history

From Boom Fall 2014, Vol 4, No 3

There are few better places in California to think with nature than the blustery earthen prow of Fraser Point at the northwest tip of Santa Cruz Island. On a clear day, the point offers a magnificent 360-degree panorama. Behind you lie the island’s arid windward slopes. To your right, sheer headlands overlook the Santa Barbara Channel and distant Santa Ynez Mountains. On your left is Santa Cruz Island’s rugged western shore with its sea cliffs, tide pools, and guano-caked rocks. Directly in front of you across a six-mile strait, Santa Rosa Island’s sand dunes shimmer in the afternoon sun. Far beyond, the hazy, double-humped apparition of San Miguel Island hovers over the horizon, perched on the edge of the wild Pacific.

Standing on Fraser Point, teeth to the gale and hardly a hint of humans in sight, it is tempting to indulge in the fantasy of time travel. Superficially, this place recalls a bygone era in California when people were fewer and nature was still wild. The fact that Santa Cruz is an island, requiring an hour-and-a-half ferry ride to reach, adds to its sense of apartness, as if the channel crossing were a voyage to another age.

Photograph by Ross Doering.

Yet this place is no relic. Santa Cruz Island is the product of a long and complicated history, clues of which are everywhere for those willing to look. Gazing south from Fraser Point, massive shell mounds mark the locations of ancient Chumash villages, now recognized as some of the richest archaeological sites in western North America; a mat of squat tan foliage, including a cornucopia of native and exotic plants, carpets the foothills; deeply incised arroyos recall decades of foraging by feral animals; and a maze of rutted dirt roads, long maintained by the US military, traverse steep mountainsides. Near the end of the visible shoreline, Christy Ranch’s historic buildings once served as a remote outpost for the island’s livestock operations and now provide simple facilities for visiting researchers.

How should one study, interpret, and manage an island known worldwide for both its natural and its cultural histories? This is one of the most important questions facing parks and reserves in the twenty-first century. Santa Cruz Island just happens to be an excellent example. It provides an ideal vantage from which to view the intersection of nature and culture in California, how our state’s institutions interpret, represent, and mobilize history, and how their approaches to remembering the past and documenting change over time bear on the present.

Three institutions—the National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, and the University of California’s Natural Reserve System—serve as Santa Cruz Island’s custodians. Along with a handful of other mainland organizations, they also serve as the de facto guardians of the island’s history. Each has developed its own relationship with the past, and these relationships inform the ways that each studies, manages, and interprets the island. Each has a different origin, mission, and culture. Each embraces a particular kind of institutional memory, and each engages in some form of organized amnesia. The way these institutions remember and act on Santa Cruz Island’s past will shape its future—and perhaps the futures of other such places in California and beyond.

First, consider the National Park Service, whose relationship with the past is best described as selected memory. Congress established the service in 1916 to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects” in national parks and monuments, and to “provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” In 1980 Congress created Channel Islands National Park, which includes Anacapa, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara Islands. By 2000, the park also had acquired the eastern quarter of Santa Cruz Island.

For more than three decades, the park service has interpreted the Channel Islands’ history in much the same way that it has told the histories of other western national parks. Indeed, many readers who have never visited or even heard of the Channel Islands will immediately recognize the plotline of the service’s official history. It goes something like this:

The four northern Channel Islands comprise a seaward arm of the Santa Monica Mountains, at the southwestern edge of California’s Transverse Ranges. During the Pleistocene epoch, when sea level dropped to 120 meters below its current elevation, this archipelago formed a contiguous landmass. Close enough to the mainland to receive occasional terrestrial migrants, yet far enough away to isolate those newcomers from their source populations, the islands became a remarkable laboratory of evolution. Although not as rich in species as the mainland, they housed a grand menagerie of ice age flora and fauna, including the fanciful, oxymoronic pygmy mammoth. At least 145 species of plants and animals still occur here but nowhere else.

Evidence of human presence on the islands dates back at least 13,000 years. Over time, the Chumash people who lived here developed a sophisticated and cosmopolitan culture, complete with shell bead currency, deep-sea fishing gear, long-distance trade networks, and elaborate rituals. In 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed along the Santa Cruz coastline, past Fraser Point, and estimated a population of around 2,000 human inhabitants in six villages. Disease and missionization decimated these communities and led to their abandonment by the early 1800s, less than three centuries after European contact. Ranching began on Santa Cruz Island in the 1830s with a Mexican land grant, and agriculture dominated the island for 150 years. Feral grazing and rooting animals denuded the vegetation, threatening native species and leaving a desolate landscape in many areas. Since the 1980s, restoration projects have begun to restore the island’s ecosystems, a process that most observers believed would take decades but is already showing remarkable results.1

If this story seems familiar that is because it is based on a formula.2 Visit other western national parks and you will see the same tale, told again and again, with different details but an identical structure. As a genre, the park service’s official history hits all of the disciplinary high points that national park visitors have come to expect: geography, geology, evolution, ecology, archaeology, and history. By combining the multiple temporal scales associated with these disciplines, national parks offer a God’s eye view meant to convey a sense of wonder in the presence of ancient things and monumental processes. From a practical perspective, the park service cultivates this feeling of awe to instill a code of conduct within the parks and an ethic of support for its mission. From an ideological viewpoint, the official history also serves as a nationalist narrative designed to enroll visitors in a shared heritage that inevitably culminates with modern American society and benevolent bureaucratic management.3

Photograph by Flickr user Momo Go.

Recently, at other sites, the park service has confronted challenges to its portrayals of the past, and this has led to public debates and new approaches.4 But these are exceptions. In a century of honing its official history, the park service has elevated this tale of the western national parks to the status of common sense. Today, it is the dominant narrative not only of ranger stations, trailhead signage, and official documents, but also of websites, guidebooks, and popular lore.

There is nothing nefarious about the park service’s mission, nor anything technically wrong with the story it tells. Its facts are accurate, its chronology sound. Yet its version of the past barely resembles the kind of history that most historians regard as vital and interesting. Historians value questions as much as answers, insights as well as information. They endeavor to treat the past on its own terms, while drawing appropriate connections to contemporary issues. They seek to tell stories that enliven history, while puncturing the air of inevitability so common in textbook accounts. Perhaps most important, they treat all narratives of the past as provisional.

Photograph by Ken Lund.

The official history of Santa Cruz Island sends an altogether different message. It is correct but not especially interesting because it is predictable rather than contingent. It is written in declarative instead of interrogative language that preempts, not prompts, further discussion. It artificially separates the past from the present, even though the consequences of that past are everywhere today. It then conflates the two by asserting that wise managers can turn back the clock, remaking lost landscapes from previous eras. The park service presents a stable and comfortable version of the past. Yet in doing so, it avoids almost all of the complex and important questions that link historical processes to current concerns.

Santa Cruz Island’s second major administrative institution is The Nature Conservancy, whose connection to the past takes the form of directed memory. The conservancy, which owns the western three-quarters of the island, has its roots in the Ecological Society of America. Two years after the society’s founding, in 1915, it established a preservation committee to promote the establishment of nature reserves for ecological field research. In 1946 the society’s governing board disbanded the committee, arguing that activist organizations, not scientific societies, should take the lead in conservation work. Several members responded by forming a new group, the Ecologists’ Union, which in 1950 they renamed The Nature Conservancy. This would become the world’s largest nongovernmental conservation organization.5

In 1978 the conservancy acquired most of Santa Cruz Island from the Stanton family, which, like so many other wealthy Southern California clans, made its fortune in the oil industry. The family patriarch, Carey Stanton, made it clear that he did not want his property to fall into the hands of the National Park Service. After Stanton’s death in 1987, the conservancy assumed full management of its portion of the island. This is where its story of the island’s history begins.

At the time, Santa Cruz Island was, by all accounts, in miserable condition. The conservancy’s restoration work began with the removal of more than 30,000 feral sheep in the 1980s and more than 5,000 feral hogs by 2006. Sometime in the 1990s, golden eagles from the mainland first appeared on the islands. They probably migrated there to feed on the islands’ piglets, but they also found its native foxes easy prey. By the early 2000s, the island fox—an endemic and charismatic subspecies, which, despite its diminutive size, was the island’s apex terrestrial predator—had nearly gone extinct. The conservancy joined with several other organizations to mount a response that included rounding up the foxes, protecting them in enclosures, and initiating a captive breeding program, while eradicating the remaining pigs and revegetating the denuded areas where the foxes were most vulnerable to areal predation by golden eagles. The program also involved removing all of the golden eagles and replacing them with bald eagles. Bald eagles disappeared from the islands by the mid-twentieth century, due to a combination of hunting, harassment, and reproductive failure associated with DDT toxicity. Many biologists believed that bald eagles were once common on the islands, were sufficiently territorial to fend off golden eagles, and preyed on fish rather than foxes.6

Photograph by Flickr user Momo Go.

In its promotional materials, the conservancy describes these events as a gripping tale of loss and recovery through expert management. A short online film, entitled Santa Cruz Island: Restoring the Balance, sets the stage. An airborne camera pans across the island to solemn music while the narrator describes it as “a world apart. . . Every plant and animal is an integral part of a unique, self-sustaining ecosystem. But this is a fragile place, where the slightest human touch can be profound.”7 The conservancy’s website echoes its film, recounting the story, and concluding with a declaration of victory: “Once on the brink of ecological collapse, Santa Cruz Island now offers visitors a glimpse of what Southern California used to be like hundreds of years ago. . . After three decades of tireless work, Santa Cruz Island has emerged as a leading example for successful island restoration and innovative conservation.”8

The conservancy deserves credit for its accomplishments. Yet its account of Santa Cruz Island’s history is filled with contradictions. The claim that Santa Cruz is “a world apart” forgets the extent to which people have shaped its flora and fauna. The idea that every organism is “an integral part” of the island’s “self-sustaining ecosystem” ignores the outsized role of introduced species, particularly nonnative plants, dozens of which are still common there. It also fails to mention the occasional natural colonizations that are typical of a large island so close to a continent. It discounts the several millennia during which humans, not foxes or eagles, dominated the island’s food web. And it overlooks the conservancy’s own history of intensive management, which is unlikely to end soon. Calling Santa Cruz “fragile” may seem reasonable, considering the grave changes that occurred there during the ranching era. But the conservancy’s own description of the island’s recovery suggests that even after decades of abuse, this remains a remarkably resilient place. Given these observations, the claim that Santa Cruz Island offers “a glimpse of what Southern California used to be like hundreds of years ago” is untenable. A more honest assessment would arrive at nearly the opposite conclusion: the past 250 years have been the most transformative and consequential in the island’s long history.

The Nature Conservancy’s account of the past qualifies as directed memory because it is history with a purpose. Unlike the National Park Service—which sees historical interpretation as central to its work, and whose form of selected memory serves bureaucratic needs but also the broader goals of promoting an inclusive and educated citizenry—the conservancy has much narrower objectives and no real allegiance to the past. Its goals are restoring and preserving nature—a project that often involves ignoring or attempting to purge the past—and securing funds to continue its efforts. Ecosystems are inherently historical entities, which makes erasing history impossible on the ground. So where restoration reaches its limits, a rhetorical project begins.

The third institution responsible for Santa Cruz Island’s management is the University of California’s Natural Reserve System, where history has usually taken the form of neglected memory. The UC Natural Reserve System dates to the mid-1960s, when the UC system created a single administrative unit to coordinate its existing reserves, and produced a plan for the development of a larger reserve network that would include representative samples of California’s biophysical diversity. The natural reserve system’s founders envisioned it as serving several objectives. It would provide secure sites for long-term research, facilities for teaching, and spaces for studying environmental problems. The reserves would also act as control sites for measuring ecological change in surrounding areas. Today, the system encompasses thirty-nine sites with access to around 750,000 acres, making it the world’s largest and most diverse university-run reserve system.9

In 1966, a year after the system’s founding, the university established Santa Cruz Island Reserve. The state does not own any land on the island, so the reserve operates under agreements with the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy. The reserve’s director, Lyndal Laughrin, a fox biologist by training, is himself something of living historical figure, having worked on the island since 1964.

The system’s founders knew that a reserve’s value depended on effective management and adequate facilities, but they also stressed the importance of supporting documentation.10 This included basic natural history observations, scientific data collected on-site, archives pertaining to the history of the area before it joined the system, administrative records describing the reserve’s management, and libraries of reference materials. These founders conceived of a reserve network whose value would grow each year as knowledge about each site increased and became more accessible. After the system’s establishment, however, this vision was mostly forgotten. Today, the reserves hold only a small fraction of the supporting materials necessary for a rich understanding of their histories. Indeed, many scientists conducting research at UC reserves have no knowledge about the histories of their study sites, or how the legacies of those histories shape contemporary ecological processes.

There are many reasons for this predicament. Because most scientists see the history of their profession as a march toward more knowledge and better ideas, they tend to place little value on the past. During the mid-twentieth century, the biological and environmental sciences in particular turned away from historical accounts toward mechanistic explanations for patterns in nature. In the period of rapid expansion after the reserve system’s founding, its leaders focused more on site acquisitions than on instituting their vision of the reserves as repositories of knowledge. At most sites, urgent tasks—such as construction, maintenance, and fund-raising—took precedence. The need to produce timely results from funded research discouraged many scientists from undertaking long-term projects or assisting with baseline monitoring. Even efforts to compile lists of publications based on data gathered at the reserves faltered. The result of all this is that history, once the source of so much interest in the reserve system, has assumed the same role it so often does in the sciences. It moved from the vital foreground into the neglected background.

The system’s leaders now recognize their past lack of historical mindedness, and along with partners from several UC campuses they are now trying to catch up. But building an information infrastructure isn’t easy. Most reserves operate on shoestring budgets without resources for such work. A few reserves have done admirable jobs maintaining their records, but most have not. Some records have disappeared; others are disorganized, dispersed, or degraded. Basic information about past land use is missing, and only a few sites have extensive collections of historical data and documents. Their capacity to capture such materials remains limited. And the reserve directors are only beginning to develop partnerships with campus archives, libraries, museums, and laboratories whose missions include preserving such materials.

Photograph by Flickr user Momo Go.

Three factors are generating increased interest in the reserves’ histories. The system’s first generation of directors is now in or approaching retirement; if not properly planned, their departures could represent an irreplaceable loss of memory. In 2015 the reserve system will turn 50, an anniversary that will include many celebrations but may also generate questions about the system’s legacy. Finally, increased interest in environmental change has caused many scientists to search for more historical information on California ecosystems. High-quality, well-documented data going back more than a few decades, these investigators have found, is as rare as it is essential.

The Santa Cruz Island Reserve is probably in a better position relative to its supporting documentation than most other UC reserves. This is due in large part to the work of the Santa Cruz Island Foundation, an independent nonprofit group founded by Carey Stanton that collects materials related to the island. But the reserve itself is only now beginning to assemble its own archive, from long-neglected records in its office, with the assistance of a lone volunteer.

The National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, and the UC Natural Reserve System embrace different forms of memory that lead to different relationships with the past on Santa Cruz Island. But why does this matter so much for thinking with nature in California? And if all of these accounts fall short, then what should replace them?

The way these three institutions relate to the past matters because the Santa Cruz Island case is not unique, and because it affects the future in at least three crucial ways. First, it influences the kinds of historical documentation these institutions choose to preserve, which in turn shapes our understanding of environmental change. Preserving such materials requires effort, which may seem like a tall order given the constraints these institutions face. But some nearby parks and reserves provide models of what can be done, often without spending a lot of money. Stanford University’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, for example, has built a rich trove of historical documentation using mostly volunteer labor. This includes a complete database of all research conducted on the site beginning in the 1920s. With each additional archive and dataset, Jasper Ridge’s value increases. The loss of documents associated with the UC Natural Reserve System is one example of how, even in an increasingly digital world, important clues about the past can be lost without proper care.

Photograph by Ross Doering.

Second, the ways these institutions relate to the past shapes not only what they value, but also what their patrons and the broader public value about places like Santa Cruz Island. The Nature Conservancy’s rejection of most of the island’s human past sends a clear message: what is important here is nature not culture. The conservancy is entitled to manage the lands it owns according to its mission and values. (It is, after all, The Nature Conservancy.) The problem is that Santa Cruz Island is a product of both nature and culture. To truly know this place would be to value both human history and ecological processes, and to understand that both have contributed to making it what it is today.

Third, the ways these institutions relate to the past informs their management decisions. At the time of this writing, The National Park Service was promoting a new Channel Islands management plan that, if approved, will increase the proportion of the park designated as wilderness from zero to 53 percent. This will include almost all of the service’s land there, with the exception of San Miguel Island, which the park service manages but is still owned by the US Navy.11

Photograph by Ken Lund.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wildernesses as places where “earth and its community of life are untrammeled by humans, where humans are visitors and do not remain.” Such areas should retain their “primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation,” according to the act, and appear “to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of humans’ work substantially unnoticeable.” Wilderness designation can be an effective management tool, and the park service has made this a centerpiece of its nature preservation efforts. Yet it is difficult to see how the legal definition of wilderness could apply to Santa Cruz Island. To make it fit, one must accept a number of assumptions about human history and the relationship between the past and the present.12 One must believe that several millennia of human habitation do not constitute a permanent presence, and that human activities on the island have not fundamentally altered the character of its wild areas. One must trust that damaged environments will repair themselves, returning to “primeval” nature with little or no human assistance, given the practical impediments wilderness designation imposes on restoration efforts. One must also consent to the park service’s wisdom in determining which historical features, such as roads and buildings, warrant preservation. Experience from elsewhere suggests that the park service will set a high bar for what it deems worthy. Much of the island’s built environment, including any features not a part of the service’s official history, will eventually disappear.13

Now consider an alternative possibility. Imagine a world in which institutions like the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy stop presenting their versions of history as settled and circumscribed stories for passive consumption and, instead, start posing interesting questions that require us to reflect on the relationships between the past and the present. The result would be a less-manicured history, but it would be more alive and meaningful. It could also have important implications for policy and management. There are many good candidates for such questions; I will conclude with just a few.

How did the island’s native people alter its ecosystems prior to European contact, and what are the consequences of those changes for contemporary ecology and management? Did the island fox begin as a domesticated Chumash animal, and if so what does this mean for our attitudes and values toward native and exotic species?14 Did bald eagles and island foxes really live in harmony for all those years? How can histories of human impact on the islands’ marine ecosystems, which scholars once thought were trivial but now believe were extensive or even transformative, reshape our understanding of environmental history? What does it mean to establish a baseline target for ecological restoration on an island characterized by constant change? How can wilderness and historic preservation be reconciled to promote a richer appreciation of both nature and culture? And how can we develop a monitoring strategy for the island that will enable us to capture diverse data so that we can better analyze current and future environmental changes?

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope these are good questions to ponder—and to spark a conversation—if you ever find yourself, as I did recently, with time to think on a clear day at Fraser Point.


Photograph at top by Flickr user Wendell.

1 This paragraph is a summation of material contained on the National Park Service’s Channel Islands website: http://www.nps.gov/chis.

2 Alfred Runte, National Parks: The American Experience (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2010); John E. Bodnar, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 1994).

3 Popular Memory Group, “Popular Memory: Theory, Politics, Method,” The Collective Memory Reader, Jeffrey K. Olick, Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Daniel Levy, eds., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 254–260.

4 Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Masacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013).

5 Abby J. Kinchy, “On the Borders of Post-War Ecology: Struggles over the Ecological Society of America’s Preservation Committee, 1917–1946,” Science as Culture 15:1 (March 2006), 23–44.

6 Timothy J. Coonan, Catherin A. Schwemm, and David K. Garcelon, Decline and Recovery of the Island Fox: A Case Study for Population Recovery (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

7 The Conservancy’s short film is available on YouTube and other websites.

8 See The Nature Conservancy’s Santa Crux Island web page.

9 Peggy Fiedler, Susan Gee Rumsey, and Kathleen Wong, eds., The Environmental Legacy of the UC Natural Reserve System (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

10 Lawrence D. Ford and Kenneth S. Norris, “The University of California Natural Reserve System: Progress and Prospects,” BioScience 38:7(July/August 1988), 463–470; Peter S. Alagona, “A Sanctuary for Science: The Hastings Natural History Reservation and the Origins of the University of California’s Natural Reserve System.” Journal of the History of Biology 45 (2012), 651–680.

11 National Park Service, Channel Islands National Park Draft Management Plan/Wilderness Study/Environmental Impact Statement, Channel Islands National Park, November 2013.

12 Matthew A. Lockhart, “The Trouble with Wilderness’ Education in the National Park Service: The Case of the Lost Cattle Mounts of Congaree,” The Public Historian 28:2 (Spring 2006), 11–30. William Cronon, “The Riddle of the Apostle Islands: How Do You Manage a Wilderness Full of Human Stories?” Orion (May/June 2003), 36–42; National Wilderness Steering Committee, “Guidance ‘White Paper’ Number 1: Cultural Resources and Wilderness,” 30 November 2002.

13 Laura Watt, The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore, unpublished manuscript.

14 Torben C. Rick, Jon M. Erlandson, René L. Vellanoweth, Todd J. Braje, Paul W. Collins, Daniel A. Guthrie, and Thomas W. Stafford, Jr., “Origins and Antiquity of the Island Fox (Urocyon littoralis) on California’s Channel Islands,” Quaternary Research 71 (2009), –98.


The End of Camping

by Terence Young

From Boom Fall 2014, Vol 4, No 3

Coming home to the city

Making tea on the summit of Liberty Cap on a Sierra Club outing to Mt. Ritter in 1909. Photograph by Edward Taylor Parsons. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

When twenty-nine-year-old John Muir first disembarked at San Francisco in March 1868, he was a man with a mission. On the road for nearly a year, Muir had walked 1,000 miles from Indianapolis to the Gulf Coast, sailed south to Cuba and Panama, where he crossed the Isthmus, and then sailed north to California. Legend has it that once off the ship, Muir asked a passing stranger which was the shortest route to any place wild. Without hesitation, the man directed Muir east to the Sierra Nevada where for the next twelve years he more or less made Yosemite and the nearby mountains his home.

A Romantic in the mold of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Muir questioned the value of an urban-industrial life and praised the state’s wilder areas as God’s handiwork, the antidote for those who had to toil in California’s cities. “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings,” wrote Muir in 1901. “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”¹

Many Californians heard Muir, and took him at his word when they headed out of San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles, and other cities to pitch their tents in Yosemite, Sequoia, and other wild settings. Over the next century the annual number of recreational campers swelled into the millions as more and more Californians, as well as other Americans, escaped their everyday lives to enjoy the premodern conditions of camping that they were told by Muir and others would restore and refresh them before returning to their permanent residences. These campers, just as Muir had recommended, became pilgrims to California’s natural “cathedrals.”

Pilgrimage is never straightforward nor simply a matter of traveling somewhere. Regardless of whether the ultimate destination is Lourdes, Gettysburg, Disneyland, or wilderness, a pilgrim does not begin to journey unless he is dissatisfied with life’s customary places, people, and social relations. Something in his or her life must “push” the pilgrim away from the profane, everyday world before the journey can begin. At the same time, the pilgrim must desire some exceptional outcome in order to be “pulled” toward and into a sacred, transformative place during pilgrimage and then, hopefully, return to the everyday world satisfied.2

Pilgrimage is generally arduous, forcing pilgrims to endure challenges as a part of their journeys. One of the world’s foremost religious pilgrimages, the hajj to Mecca, has traditionally been seen as so difficult that devout Muslims are expected to perform it only once in a lifetime. In Spain each year, thousands of pilgrims, the majority of whom are not Roman Catholics, hike hundreds of miles to kiss the statue of Saint James in his cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Of course, one could simply fly into Santiago or drive there from St. Jean Pied de Port, a traditional starting point on the French border, but people who do so are dismissed as “tourists” by those who, like innumerable pilgrims before them, walk the traditional path.3

“No American wilderness that I know of is so dangerous as a city home ‘with all the modern improvements.’ One should go to the woods for safety, if for nothing else.” —John Muir, Our National Parks

Camping is not a religious practice, nor is it usually as arduous as the great pilgrimages, especially these days, but it does share this pilgrimage pattern.4 Campers perceive great power at a place—”nature”—which when tapped can counteract the “evils” of urban life and “restore” them mentally and physically. This restoration will occur only if the camper travels to where nature’s power is readily accessible and there resides temporarily. Not just any location will do—and then there’s the pilgrimage itself, from the preparations that must be made before setting off to the journey itself. At the same time, what qualifies as “natural” and how one engages it turns out to be highly flexible among campers as a whole. Parking a large motorhome along the Pacific Coast Highway on the Ventura County shoreline can satisfy some. Others have long preferred to car camp in Yosemite. While for still others, only a backpacking trip along a remote stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail will suffice. Wherever it is, it must be a place where the pilgrim-in-the-wild will cede some element of control and let nature take over.

No matter how it is practiced, the patterns of modern camping are closely tied to the long-standing divisions of urban and wild California. According to one powerful strand of our national myth, a free and democratic America was forged on the wild frontier, not in the country’s “over-civilized” cities, which have long been perceived as unhealthy and hazardous environments. Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect involved in the origins of Yosemite as a park and the creation of Central Park in New York, subscribed to this view as he justified his 1866 plan for San Francisco’s “Public Pleasure Grounds.” The city’s population, he warned, was “wearing itself out with constant labor, study and business anxieties. . . Cases of death, or of unwilling withdrawal from active business. . . cause losses of capital in the general business of the city, as much as fires or shipwrecks.” What the city needed, offered Olmsted, was a woodland park with “beautiful sylvan scenes” where exhausted San Franciscans could escape the city and relax in nature.5

Americans may earn their fortunes in cities, but they don’t really belong there. Instead, their true home is wilderness, which Muir declared, is safer than any urban residence. The expressions of this tradition of urban skepticism have been pervasive and monumental, spawning America’s great urban parks, its sprawling suburbs, and camping.

Unsurprisingly, most campers have been from urban areas. For more than 100 years, those who preach the benefits of camping have sounded like Olmsted—bemoaning everyday urban places as burdensome, polluted, and irritating. “We want to emphasize here and now,” began the Sierra Club’s David Brower in Going Light with Backpack or Burro, “even to the point of being evangelical in our emphasis, that one gains a great deal by getting just as far from exhaust fumes and ringing telephones as his feet will let him. . . and that so long as one can walk. . . it is possible to use the wilderness as a sanctuary.”6 Again and again, for more than a century, camping has been offered as a positive escape from stress, overwork, in-laws, and other everyday irritations.

Camping, however, also has a darker side. Paraphrasing historian William Cronon, to the degree that campers have seen themselves as somehow displaced from their “true” homes in nature and have turned to nature to find solace, they have missed opportunities to amend their cities environmentally and to place them on more sustainable paths.7 Camping is not just a pleasant form of leisure. It can also be interpreted as an escape from campers’ responsibilities for their cities. Is city life too noisy? Backpack through the quiet of the Sierra Nevada high country. Is the air polluted? RV camp in fresh air along the Pacific shoreline. City streets too harsh? Car camp out in a lush redwood forest. By escaping cities to find nature, campers have been evading the environmental challenges of a truly supportive and humane urban life.

John Muir, circa 1902.

But camping is in trouble. After more than a century of increasing popularity, the number of campers is declining. Although camping remains among the top-five outdoor recreations in the United States, the rate of participation by Americans sixteen and older is down from its peak in the late 1990s. Automobile, trailer, and motorhome camping at “developed” locations (with drinking water, tables, restrooms, etc.) and at “primitive” locations (without such amenities) has decreased approximately 7 percent overall. Only backpacking’s popularity has held steady, although at much lower numbers than other forms of camping.8

Predictably, perhaps, given how much significance has been invested in camping, some observers interpret this diminution in camping as a menace to our civilization. Oliver Pergams and Patricia Zaradic argue that the decrease in camping and other forms of outdoor recreation indicates that Americans are shifting away from an appreciation of nature and toward “videophilia,” which they define as a “tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media.” Such a shift, they conclude, “does not bode well for the future of biodiversity conservation.” In an even gloomier piece, author Richard Louv argues in Last Child in the Woods that American children increasingly suffer from “nature-deficit disorder” because fewer of them are camping, playing in streams, and generally enjoying themselves outdoors. This deficit must be reduced, Louv warns, because “our mental, physical, and spiritual health depends upon it.”9

But instead of immediately taking such a sentimental and alarmist view, let’s recall the history and cultural significance of camping, which present at least two potential explanations for its decline:

First, most forms of camping are losing their ability to function as a pilgrimage. As campers embrace the latest in modern, high-tech gear, they transmute “roughing it”—a distinctly antimodern activity—into something comfortable and too much like everyday life. Car campers, for example, no longer have to experience many of camping’s customary hardships. Campers may still sleep on the ground, but it is no longer so uncomfortable when using a microfiber sleeping bag rated to 35 degrees and a self-inflating mattress pad. The culinary limitations of camping have likewise moderated with the use of coolers, propane stoves, and an explosion of gourmet freeze-dried meal options. The physical challenge of hiking vanished when a paved road allowed campers to drive to scenic overlooks. When camping with a trailer, motorhome, or other recreational vehicle, adversity recedes even further. Without its physical and psychological challenges, the transition from daily life to camping can become so “smooth” it’s barely a transition at all. With no bright line between the wild and the urban, how can camping be the refreshing and restorative break it’s meant to be? Like those who fly to Santiago de Compostela to visit Saint James’s cathedral, comfortable campers slide from being pilgrims to “tourists.” By contrast, backpacking’s appeal continues because no matter how much backpackers may adopt the latest in gear, they still have to walk and carry their load. In a fundamental way, it remains “rough.”

“D. A. Stivers and Thor arrive in camp, Camp Kitmear, 1915,” from Panama Pacific International Exposition and Yosemite Camping Views. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

A second explanation for the decrease in camping’s popularity brings us back to California’s rapid and destructive form of urbanization, where for more than a century cities, farms, resource extraction sites, and pristine areas grew increasingly discrete and isolated from one another. Now, however, the distinctions between these landscapes are beginning to fade as they slowly blend back into one another. “Urban agriculture” is no longer an oxymoron; a billion dollar plan to restore the Los Angeles River has been embraced by the US Army Corps of Engineers; and “rewilding” California’s cities with native flowers has thousands of supporters. Distributed, renewable energy, onsite rainwater retention, xerophytic gardening, the greening of alleys, protecting urban mountain lions, and much, much more are increasing the sustainability of California’s cities and decreasing the differences between them, agricultural tracts, protected wildlands, and natural resource areas. Californians are beginning to bring their cities and nature back together.10

As these landscapes become less sharply separate and as California’s cities become more “natural,” campers are decreasingly feeling a need to heed Muir’s call to climb the mountains in order to get the “good tidings.” Instead, they are finding and making it around themselves in everyday life. And, to the degree that camping is decreasing because Californians feel less distressed by their urban homes, these are all signs that we are embracing where we really live, which are good tidings in their own way.

Glenola and Robert E. Rose, 1938. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library.



1 John Muir, Our National Parks (NY: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1901), 56.

2 The anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff once characterized pilgrimage as simply “in-out-in with a difference.” The pilgrim begins in everyday society, steps out of that society and then returns to her/his society transformed. See Barbara Myerhoff, “Pilgrimage to Meron: Inner and Outer Peregrinations” in S. Lavie, K. Narayan, and R. Rosaldo, Creativity/Anthropology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 218.

3 See Nancy Louise Frey, Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 26–27.

4 Gwen Kennedy Neville, Kinship and Pilgrimage: Rituals of Reunion in American Protestant Culture (NY: Oxford University Press, 1987) has identified a variety of anti-urban pilgrimage patterns in American life.

5 Frederick Law Olmsted, “Preliminary Report in Regard to a Plan of Public Pleasure Grounds for the City of San Francisco” in Victoria Post Ranney, Gerard J. Rauluk, and Carolyn F. Hoffman, The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, Volume V: The California Frontier (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 522.

6 David Brower, Going Light with Backpack or Burro (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1951), 6.

7 William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature” in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1995), 81.

8 The current popularity of camping is ranked in Outdoor Foundation, “Outdoor Recreation Participation Report 2012” (Boulder: The Outdoor Foundation, 2012), 14. The decreasing participation rates for “developed” and “primitive” camping and the steady appeal of backpacking were revealed by the 1999–2001 and the 2005–2009 National Surveys on Recreation and the Environment. See H. Ken Cordell, “Outdoor Recreation Trends and Futures: A Technical Document Supporting the Forest Service 2010 RPA Assessment” (Asheville: US Forest Service, Southern Research Station Gen.Tech.Rep. SRS-150, 2012), 33, 35, 37–38.

9 Oliver R.W. Pergams and Patricia A. Zaradic, “Is Love of Nature in the US Becoming Love of Electronic Media? 16-year downtrend in National Park Visits Explained by Watching Movies, Playing Video Games, Internet Use and Oil Prices,” Journal of Environmental Management 80 (2006), 387, 392. See also Oliver R.W. Pergams and Patricia A. Zaradic, “Evidence for a Fundamental and Pervasive Shift Away from Nature-Based Recreation,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105 (2008), 2295–2300. Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Updated and Expanded E-Book Edition (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books. 2008), paragraph 13–13.

10 The idea that cities need not be sites of degeneration, but can be places for the mutual regeneration of nature and society is increasingly explored by scholars and students. See, for instance, the John T. Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Their website is located at http://www.csupomona.edu/~crs/.


On Observation

by Rafe Sagarin

Notes from a field course on the California coast

From Boom Fall 2014, Vol 4, No 3

Photograph by Flickr user Stonebird.

In The Log From the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts wrote, “We determined to go doubly open so that in the end we could, if we wished, describe the sierra thus: ‘D.XVII-15-IX; A.II-15-IX,’ but also we could see the fish alive and swimming, feel it plunge against the lines, drag it threshing over the rail, and even finally eat it. And there is no reason why either approach should be inaccurate.”

A few years ago in the fall, I led a coastal field course from Los Angeles to San Francisco with thirteen undergraduates and graduate students from Duke University. Like John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts in preparing for their expedition to the Gulf of California, I wanted us to go “doubly open,” knowing that this approach entails a whole spectrum of observation between the coldly scientific and the deeply experiential poles that Steinbeck and Ricketts staked out for their expansive interpretation of field science. I wanted my students to see California with reverence and awe, while not ignoring its flaws and internal contradictions. I wanted us to get immersed in its cold Pacific waters, to cover our hands in octopus ink and the slime of stranded drift mats of giant kelp. I also wanted to walk in its cement rivers and inhale the stink of its refineries. I wanted us to savor its delicious doughnuts, uncover the secrets of its wines, and gorge ourselves on enormous burritos. I wanted to share it all with the eclectic mix of artists and activists, scientists and stewards who make California their home.

Coastal California presents many possibilities for observation. Because the lessons we learned on our last day in San Francisco might also apply to our first day on Catalina island, and the cement-lined LA River is an excellent lens with which to understand a redwood studded creek near Santa Cruz, I want to break the constraints of time and space here and try—as biologist Ricketts and Steinbeck did throughout their fruitful collaborative years—to recount this story of our journey as a holistic, ecological account of what we saw and what we did. What follows, then, is not a linear diary of our trip, but observations that I hope might coalesce in the reader’s mind to define the whole of what it means to travel the California coast with eyes wide open to all its possibilities.

Observation is not just the task of looking at stuff. It is also the concept and process that paleobiologist Geerat Vermeij calls “the role of sensation—of observation with the brain in gear,” and it has been a little irritant in the mantle of my mind since I first started serious scientific observation of the California coast a few decades ago. I’ve come to see science as a shifting, evolving thing. It doesn’t really shift around the astounding new discoveries that make headlines, as we often are led to believe. Instead, like all evolutions, it shifts holistically in system-wide modifications of simple, ancient processes. Those simple and ancient processes are driven by observation—how we observe and how we use the products of our observation—and observation has become more powerful than at any previous point in scientific history.

Observation, hyper-accelerated by new technologies and hyper-expanded by greater openness to nonprofessional, noninstitutional, and even nonhuman observers, is the catalyst of the latest evolutionary shift in science. Observation is no longer just the first step in the well-codified, and too often mythologized, “scientific method” that we were all taught in high school, but the driving force in a recursive process of understanding our rapidly changing world at the smallest and largest scales imaginable. In this recent evolution of science—where we have bigger questions to answer and vastly bigger observational data sets to contend with—correlation can indicate causation, experiments and controls may be neither necessary nor possible, and mere fishing expeditions can and often do yield profound catches.

For my generation and those before me, this kind of talk is still dangerous, even as my colleagues begrudgingly begin to admit that all science can’t be controlled and all scientists don’t have letters after their names. But I wonder about the generation following me. My students grew up hearing about “the” scientific method, too, but the most exciting and troubling stories of their time—whole sequenced genomes and planetary-wide disturbances such as climate change—have been based on observations, not experiments or theory.

A field course is a good way to observe how students observe. On a field course, passive listening and lab exercises and reading and writing give way to observation. And field courses, obviously more so than lecture halls, reveal the individual behind the observations. We all observe in different ways, based on our personal skills and past experiences. Good birders observe with their ears. The first thing I observe when I came to the California coast is the smell. It’s a mix of kelpy iodine and guano and salt spray and the oily compounds of chaparral. Geerat Vermeij, who is one of the most skilled naturalists I know, has been blind since childhood, so he observes with his fingers.

Photograph by NOAA Fisheries West Coast.

Vermeij once said that observing is the most important skill a scientist can have, and he argued that it must be taught and honed. The students on my trip with the best eyes or noses or ears or fingers were not necessarily those who had spent much, if any, time in California, but the ones who had spent the most time observing nature. The ones who walked muddy creeks with a fishing pole throughout their childhood, or trapped and domesticated raccoons, or spent every summer on their grandfather’s farm. One student became known as “The Octopus Whisperer” for her uncanny ability to spot secretive octopuses wherever they roamed. It suggested to me that “search images”—which we are told on countless nature programs are how predators identify prey—are not necessarily specific images at all, but rather a way of observationally parsing patterns and relationships in the environment that transcends a particular place.


I can’t think of an observation of California life that isn’t profoundly shaped, distorted, and clarified through the lens of water. Its presence and absence are felt everywhere. This was well illustrated during a hot hike into the inauspiciously named Garapata (“The Tick”) at the north end of the Big Sur coast. I had promised redwoods, but all we saw for a mile or so were forbidding hillsides of prickly pear and poison oak and a scattering of tough wildflowers—Indian paintbrush, lupine, and, my favorite, sticky monkey flower—baking in the sun. Finally, though, we reached the spot where the steep hills of Garapata trap the coastal fog, and the hard dusty trail falls into a shady oasis of ferns and towering redwoods.

In Los Angeles, even a tiny gap in the cement channel of the LA River bursts forth with life, forming an unexpected urban oasis in the middle of miles of freeways and strip malls. As Joe Linton—artist, planner, dreamer, and lover of the LA River—explained to us, LA was transformed from a city born out of its river, to a city in fear of its river, to a city that forgot it even had a river. As a result, a place that is chronically short of water has created the most efficient system for ensuring that rainwater rushes right through the heart of the city and out into the ocean as fast as possible. Except for direct rainfall, barely a drop quenches dry gardens, feeds kayak streams, supports fish, or recharges aquifers. But a new transformation is taking place. Angelenos are reacquainting themselves with the river through bike paths and pocket parks that were once uninviting dead ends and vacant lots. The more adventurous take tours like the one we took, straight into the confluence of the LA River and the Arroyo Seco.

Photograph by Flickr user Pinkishkaty.

LA became a city of such great size and diversity only by taming its unpredictable river, and now the diverse energy of a great city is engaged in trying to bring the river back to LA. There are scientists and politicians, landscape architects and artists, movie stars and former gangsters all working on the problem of bringing a waterway cast in cement and surrounded by development back from near dead.

Meanwhile, every time it rains the cemented rivers of LA deliver thousands of tons of trash, bacteria, and virus-laced water out to the coast. We visited one such river, Ballona Creek, as it empties into Santa Monica Bay. For its last quarter mile or so the cement Ballona Creek is hopefully called “Ballona Estuary,” but its only resemblance to a real estuary is the tidal influence that gives it brackish water. Off to the side of the channelized “estuary” are the Ballona Wetlands, once a vast waterfowl playground for wealthy hunters, now a 600-acre patch of vegetation, mud flats, and stalled developments that were recently purchased by the state. It is scattered with beautiful native plants and over 200 bird species including the endangered Belding’s savannah sparrow.

Hundreds of miles up the coast and a universe away, a small network of streams in a redwood forest is facing its own water problems. Led by watershed activist Mat Rowley, we went out with a handful of dedicated local citizens, state, federal, and university employees who are working to protect one small watershed and the Coho salmon and cutthroat trout that are barely holding on to their stronghold here. Historical photos from the early twentieth century reveal entire basins here stripped of all redwoods, barren hillsides looking ready to slide at any moment. Luckily, the combination of California heat and coastal fog make ideal conditions for growing the giant trees, and they grow fast, prompting local agricultural scientists to imagine a future sustainable redwood forest industry.

Fish have a much shorter life span than redwoods, and their recovery is much less assured. It is a difficult life, being an anadromous fish, and all the stars must align, even if you are raised, as many are, in the coddled safety of a hatchery. Again, water is the key. There must be adequate water flow to scour creek banks and enough depth to provide deep holes for the fish. When they get to the ocean, those waters must be enriched by upwelling from deep, cold waters carrying enough nutrients to feed the trophic network atop which these predators swim. And when the same fish get back from long ocean migrations to spawn a year or two or three later, there must also be enough water that year to break open the sand berms that form at the beach end of many California streams. Unfortunately, these tiny salmon streams have three thick straws constantly drawing away their water to quench the thirst of some of the most expensive real estate market in the country, the semiconductors and servers of Silicon Valley, and the remnant agriculture that drew farmers to California in search of paradise.

Mat asserted that the ideal political unit is a watershed, and this certainly seems like a logical and more organic way to organize people. It even seems remotely feasible in a place like Santa Cruz. But what about in our massively altered watersheds? What about in Los Angeles? I once saw a tongue-in-cheek “Watershed Map” of LA. It contained nearly the entire state of California as well as much of the intermountain west, because these are the places LA sucks water from to sustain itself. The original topographic watershed of LA could never support LA as it is, and if whitewater kayakers in Colorado and farmers in California’s central valley and Mexican fishermen in the northern Gulf of California had an equal say on some supreme LA Watershed Council, it’s doubtful they’d continue to watch helplessly while their water trickled away from them in open air canals, headed for Hollywood.


If California gets any significant new source of freshwater, it will most likely have to come from the sea, but no one has figured out yet how to overcome the huge amount of energy needed to turn ocean water into drinking water through large-scale desalination. For now the salty waters of California have their own unique role in supporting what is likely the most productive ecosystem on Earth—the coastal kelp forest.

On a glorious afternoon we sat on the deck of a long-immobile trailer at the University of California’s Rancho Marino Research Reserve. We gazed out at a kelp forest stretching up and down a wild stretch of the coast. Don Canestro, the reserve manager and a true California waterman brought us down to tide pools “ferocious with life,” in the words of Steinbeck and Ricketts. Don serenaded us with a tune trumpeted through the massive hollow stipe of bull kelp. Here, in addition to five different types of starfish (the delicate little, blood red Henrecia, the homely and hermetic six-armed Leptasterias, the diversely colored bat star Patiria, the hard spiny Pisaster, and the ridiculously over-armed Pycnopodia), anemones, millions of black turban snails, a few remnants of old California, including abalone, still hung on, as well as more unusual creatures, such as the massive gumboot chiton, the oddly named sea mouse (really a polychaete worm), several types of brightly colored sea slugs, and the diabolically clever octopus. Offshore, otter dipped through the kelp and sea lions brayed from a distant islet.

A few days earlier on Catalina Island, we broke free of the thin intertidal zone, slipping out to sea on borrowed kayaks. We could look down twenty feet into the kelp forest past sparkling jeweled top snails, and look up to cactus-covered cliffs stretched and folded in the most improbable geologic contortions. Some of those contortions made grottoes in the cliffs, with the light reflecting in twisting, shimmering bands on the roof.

Later that day, we snorkeled through cobble fields and rich kelp forests. It was a stunning wilderness, just twenty miles from the urban expanse of Los Angeles. Abundant Garabaldi, the state fish of California, floated like orange lanterns among the kelp fronds. We did not see many starfish urchins and rockfish, however. These extremely long-lived fish have been virtually wiped out from many of the more accessible reefs in California. Because of their long lives (several live well over 100 years), late maturation, and low reproductive rates, it will take a long time for this diverse group of fish to recover. It raised an important question, of both scientific and personal value: “Do I focus my observations on what’s there, or what isn’t there?”

On a scientific level, dealing with negative observations is problematic. Maybe we happened to snorkel on a day the rockfish were mating on the other side of the island. The best way to sharpen the outline of that negative space is to get more basic observations—dive around the island, dive throughout the year, learn when and where the fish mate, set up well-enforced reserves, and see if the fish come back. On a personal level, it can be disheartening to always observe the negative space. It takes some of the unbridled joy out of floating in a kelp forest or hiking up a canyon. However, it does give a sense of direction for a conservation pathway, which always starts with that missing element or altered state, winds its way through trophic webs, habitats, climate, and history all the way back down to one important driver of change: people.


Ecologists such as myself, who were once content studying gorgeous ecological systems in the semi-pristine comfort of scientific reserves, are increasingly recognizing the obvious: all ecological systems are profoundly influenced by human beings who are themselves shaped by complex economic and social behaviors. California is a fabulous living laboratory for these “social-ecological systems.” In a state of thirty-six million people, it is pretty hard to separate nature from humans. That separation becomes even more difficult when you consider California’s role as the sixth largest economy in the world as well as its location as a gateway to the entire Pacific.

Nowhere is this interaction more clear than in the ports of LA and Long Beach—the largest shipping port in the United States. Here much of the world’s goods (and, I might argue, crap) are offloaded day and night. The ships idle, burning dirty marine diesel, while cranes pile huge metal containers into tall stacks that build up into ephemeral cities that are taken down as those containers are loaded onto flatbed trucks and long freight trains, which carry the shipments to warehouses and distribution centers where other trucks come to take the goods to Walmarts, Best Buys, and Home Depots near you.

All that movement has an environmental price, which is often concentrated in places where people can barely afford to pay it. Wilmington is a kind of nontown bordering the ports and politically forgotten in the vastness of the mega city of LA to which it belongs. When the ports announced plans to build a wall through the neighborhood to mitigate the local effects of traffic and pollution from all this global trade, Jesse Marquez, a Wilmington resident spoke out. With no college degree, no research training, and no money, Jesse educated himself about pollutants from the diesel ships, cranes, and trucks. He learned to read an environmental impact statement and to demand public hearings. He discovered alternatives, such as electrified ports, that at least don’t concentrate all the pollution in one area. Jesse has no staff and no political power, but he and his collaborators have not only brought several port and refinery projects to a halt, they’ve changed the way all future port projects in LA—and perhaps throughout the world—are likely to be constructed in the years to come.

With so much intense interaction between people and ecosystems, even the shadow of people long gone leaves a lasting impression. A remnant of William Randolph Hearst’s excesses, in the form of a zebra herd, grazed casually on the coastal below Hearst Castle when we visited. Hearst’s estate is slowly returning to the public domain, which offers wonderful opportunities to restore lands and riparian areas degraded by grazing (I don’t yet know what the plan for zebras is), bring back native plants and pollinators, and provide more public access.

However, the easily exploitable intertidal zones—once protected by gated roads—can often be unintended casualties of this movement. Researchers estimated that one of the last healthy red abalone populations live on a northern California ranch that returned to the public after over 150 years of private ownership. The population lost about twenty years of reproductive potential in the first year of public access, as abalone hunters, with the blessing of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, eagerly plundered a long inaccessible spot.

As we moved up the Big Sur coast, I saw another shadow of human interaction, the invasive pampas grass, which is outcompeting native plants wherever it appears. This grass spread from long fingers running along fissures in steep rock walls to whole fields full in just a few years. Their huge inflorescences full of easily transported seeds are both their source of attraction to landscape gardeners and the reason they spread so well, even to places like Big Sur, far from manicured California lawns.

Photograph by Melissa Weise.

How does an ecologist observe a landscape? Should I see the objectively beautiful pampas grass as blight on an otherwise gorgeous coast? The author Henry Miller, who retreated to Big Sur in the mid-twentieth century, asked of the region, “How long will it hold out against the invader?” Miller had people in mind, and there are still not many here, but should I expand his definition of invasion and concede defeat to the pampas grass?

Toward the end of our journey, I got to thinking about the long chains of observations, and scientific knowledge, and the links that are forged in individual relationships, directly between teachers and students, and remotely between strangers across the world and across time. On a wall at Hopkins Marine Station, the oldest marine lab on the west coast in Pacific Grove, California, is a copy of a hastily scrawled note written with a calligraphy brush that was found by a US submarine crew in the closing days of World War II, tacked to the door of a small island laboratory in Japan. It reads:

“This is a marine biological station with her history of over sixty years. If you are from the Eastern Coast some of you might know Woods Hole or Mt. Desert or Tortagna. If you are from the West Coast you may know Pacific Grove or Puget Sound Biological Station. This place is a place like one of those. Take care of this place and protect the possibility for the continuation of our peaceful research. You can destroy the weapons and the war instruments, but save the civil equipments for Japanese students. When you are through with your job here notify to the University and let us come back to our scientific home.—The last one to go”

I have passed that note thousands of times during the many years I have studied at, worked at, and now visited Hopkins Marine Station. And every time I stop to read it, I’m overcome with emotion. I think of that biologist, alone, fleeing a clash between two enormous forces, putting all his faith in a still larger truth: that the virtue of discovery would be universally acknowledged. The faith of that scientist, Katsuma Dan, who went on to an internationally recognized career in marine ecology and developmental biology, was affirmed. The Misaki Marine Biology Station still stands today.

That chain of knowledge can be seen and felt in the new clean basement of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, too. There we saw rows and rows of preserved specimens entrusted to the academy by naturalists and scientists hoping to pass something on—even the most simple “this lived here then”—to a future observer. The specimens are long dead. More than a century has passed since some were plucked from a tide pool or a forest stream. But there is power in them still. More than one student noted that touching a dry starfish that was placed in a jar years ago by Ed Ricketts and labeled in his own hand was one of the highlights of our journey.


Fire seems to bring out the best and the worst of people in California. As we motored up the Pacific Coast Highway, we passed dozens of boxy CAL FIRE trucks packed with men and women who, laden with gear, would soon be stomping up hot dry hillsides into probably the most terrifying of California natural disasters—wildfire. Wildfires can be just as unpredictable as earthquakes, and rather than being over in seconds, they linger and tease and strike over the course of many agonizingly fearful days. On the chaparral hillsides, wildfires are stoked in steep narrow canyons that concentrate the wind, spurring them into wicked fronts of destructive force.

It was like watching soldiers marching off to war. We slowed to a rubbernecking crawl when we saw the war zone unfold right in front of us on the north end of the Malibu coast. A huge air tanker swooped down low over a ridge and opened its bomb bay doors, dousing the hillside in red flame retardant. Just a few hundred yards offshore, helicopters scooped up water and circled over the burning canyon to drop a Pacific wave on the flames.

The ecological reality is that the Malibu coast, the canyons of Orange County, and the Hollywood hills will burn, fire suppression or no. It doesn’t take a buildup of understory to turn these places into tinderboxes, because they are already set to burn. Even the smallest chaparral plants burn. All it takes is a long dry season, a careless match or lightning strike, and a fierce hot Santa Ana wind. The land will come back quickly, however. Within weeks, new plants—some whose seeds have been dormant for years and have been released to germinate by the heat—will grow. Within months, black barren hillsides will be covered in wildflowers. Maybe this is why so many Californians forget. How can such stunningly lush hills, so close to an endless expanse of water, destroy themselves so often?

But fire brought out the best moments of our trip, as well. On cold coastal nights after long drives and long days of activities, we had excellent fires. They raised our primordial subconscious memories, and we became a clan. On the last night of the trip, we gathered by the fire one more time and we shared our best moments with each other. Some were simple things unique to our small group, such as making pasta dinner in a windswept shack on a coastal bluff. Some were grand things that have been commonly felt with reverence and awe by millions of people across generations, such as a quiet sunset walk in Muir Woods. Some were very personal memories that we were grateful to be invited to share. Some moments took place in specific places, and when we heard of them we all remembered how that place looked and smelled and sounded. Afterward, we sat by the fire quietly and listened to the waves crashing on the rocks and watched the flickering embers rising to meet the flickering stars, and I thought how everyone’s favorite moment had become my favorite moment, too. So in that moment I was finally taken to that place that existed only on paper when we started the trip, a place mapped out in prose by Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck on one of their own leisurely journeys of travel and research:

Photograph by Ed Bierman.

“And it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable. This is a simple thing to say, but the profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”


Field of Genes

by H. Bradley Shaffer

A conservation genomicist looks at nature

From Boom Fall 2014, Vol 4, No 3

A phylogenetic tree and map of genetic divergence in a desert spider species complex. The tree represents how different genes at particular sites in the genome diverge between two related species. The map shows that divergences between the two species are concentrated along the Colorado River. See endnote.


I am a herpetologist. I’m a lifelong fan of reptiles and amphibians. It’s how I was born. And now I study them.

I am also an evolutionary biologist and a conservation biologist. I’m fascinated by how animals evolved to mesh with their ecosystems, and I hope that I can help conserve them to keep them from going extinct.

I am also a genomicist. Genomics is genetics on steroids. Geneticists often study animals one gene or a few genes at a time. Genomicists study lots of genes all at once, sometimes whole genomes—all of the genes in a single organism or species—and sometimes the genomes of multiple species in an ecosystem.

I like to think about the stories that plants and animals can tell me—with a little help from their genomes—about where they came from, how they make a living in nature, and why they do the things that they do. By thinking about organisms as both players in their ecological communities and as bags of DNA that can be analyzed, I see a different view of the world around me and the animals I love. Thinking about genomes may seem like a stark, scientific vision of nature at odds with a love of the outdoors. I see it as an incredibly exciting view that allows me to ask very specific questions of plants and animals, and get answers back. The effect can be pretty amazing.

A phylogenetic tree and map of genetic divergence in desert spiny lizard populations. The tree and map represent how different genes at particular sites in the genome diverge between populations in the transition zone between the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts. See endnote.

Evolutionary biologists since the mid-twentieth century have realized that to understand how plants and animals adapt and evolve one has to understand the environmental challenges they face and how, genetically, species have changed in the face of those challenges. Genetics helps us understand how the fittest parents pass on their features to their offspring and, therefore, how lineages and populations adapt to environmental changes over time. Genomicists use some new tools and fancy computer programs, but we still build on basic genetic information to understand how animals and plants survive and breed in their habitats. Like geneticists, we care about how evolution occurs and enhances survival. Unlike traditional genetics, genomics allows us to understand evolution at multiple levels.

Take one of my favorite animals: the desert tortoise. A desert tortoise has roughly three billion nucleotides—single bits of genetic information—in its genome. A population genomicist might study a million of those nucleotides or maybe even go after all three billion. Genomics offers the possibility to understand vastly more about that tortoise’s family history, its physiology, and its ability to adapt than is conceivable when studying only a few genes at a time. Genomics opens windows of understanding into the lives of plants and animals—understanding that is critical to our ability to conserve species in the face of ever-growing threats and challenges from human incursions into their habitat, climate change, and other environmental degradation.

My work on animals and natural history has taken me to some of the most pristine places on earth and some of the most modified. In the past year, I snorkeled for mata mata turtles in the remote Rio Negro in the Brazilian Amazon, netted salamanders and frogs in the Hamptons on Long Island, and noosed chuckwalla lizards in the virtually untouched Old Woman Mountains of the Mojave Desert. My students and I collected endangered California tiger salamanders at a huge landfill in the Salinas Valley, at “Machine Gun Flats” on a decommissioned military base near Monterey, and in cattle ponds in the San Joaquin Valley. It’s all part of nature, and both endangered and common species are there to be studied, admired, and, hopefully, conserved.

A phylogenetic tree and map of genetic divergence in Western shovel-nosed snake populations. The tree and map represent how different genes at particular sites in the genome diverge across Mojave and Sonoran Deserts and the Colorado River. See endnote.

To take one example that is near and dear to my heart, consider the California tiger salamander, an endangered species that is restricted to California’s Central Valley and the foothills of the Sierra and Coast Ranges. Adults of the species live underground, emerging on a few rainy nights a year to migrate to their breeding pools; they are otherwise cryptic animals that are incredibly hard to study. The species is listed under both the US and California Endangered Species Acts, and my guess is that fewer than ten university biologists in the world have ever seen an adult tiger salamander in the wild. My students and I have spent twenty years walking literally thousands of miles of trap arrays. We’ve caught tens of thousands of salamanders in order to learn where they go, when they migrate, how far they move, and how many of them exist in nature. We’ve made a lot of progress toward understanding these elusive animals by capturing, marking, releasing, and recapturing them. We’ve learned where they breed, how long they live, who survives, and who dies. That work has taken thousands of hours and several millions of dollars, but we now understand the population biology of the California tiger salamander as well as any amphibian on Earth.

Now we’re beginning to explore what we could do with a genomic sample of each of those salamanders. With a small bit of DNA, we could determine the parents of each animal that we capture, whether it has living siblings, and what genes it has that may enhance or threaten its survival. We could determine whether one or a few salamanders produce most of the successful youngsters in a population, or if all of the adults that go to a particular pond to breed have equal reproductive success. Tiger salamanders sometimes move more than a mile from their breeding pool to an underground retreat where they spend the rest of the year. I’ve often wondered if the salamanders that find a home close to the breeding pond are the strongest, most fit individuals, and, therefore, contribute the largest number of offspring to the population. I can’t work that out simply by catching salamanders in our traps, but genomic data can help answer these questions. The answers can be found within the DNA from a tiny tip of an animal’s tail or a cotton swab wiped across its skin. No fuss, no muss, and no harm or bother to the animal.

Here’s a question I’d like to ask the genome of the desert tortoise. How do desert tortoises travel across the Mojave? We know that tortoises are widely distributed across the desert and that they tend to favor certain soils for making their burrows. However, we don’t know whether they tend to use certain corridors for movement, or how important such corridors might be for tortoises as they move between protected areas of the desert. The answer to how they move is critical if we want to keep those corridors safe as large, solar power plants and other developments fragment more and more of the Mojave Desert. Genomics can help answer this question in a straightforward way. By measuring the relatedness of tortoises that are distributed across the desert, and simultaneously quantifying the soil, vegetation, and slopes of the intervening areas, we can develop a model that allows us to measure how easy it is for a tortoise to cross an acre of flat sandy wash, rocky mountain slope, and other types of habitats. If a habitat is easily traversed by tortoises, then tortoises that are very far apart geographically but still within that continuous habitat will tend to be relatively closely related; this is because parents and their offspring can move larger distances more easily within the habitat. However, if it is much more difficult for a tortoise to move across a different type of habitat, then individuals separated by short distances may be very distantly related. With the genomic data from a drop of blood and publicly available maps, this kind of information can be collected and used to help minimize the impact of habitat fragmentation on the connectivity of tortoise populations. We’re doing this work right now, and we hope to be able to help solve the problem of how we can produce clean energy without endangering tortoises on the same desert landscape.

A map of the average genetic divergence of twelves species and the protected status of desert lands in Southern California, Nevada, and Arizona. Hot spots of divergence are in the Lucerne Valley, the Colorado Desert, and along the Colorado River. See endnote.

Genomics offers insights that were impossible a few years ago. The opportunities to learn about the natural world, to place our observations, thoughts, and guesses into a scientific framework, and to better understand the impact of our human actions on nature can be enhanced by genomics in truly amazing ways. Genomics will never replace going out for a walk with eyes wide open, and it will always rely on people with curious minds and sharp observations to motivate interesting questions and research. But the next time you look in your backyard and see a scrub jay burying an acorn, you might just wonder: Where did that acorn come from? The oak down the street or a tree twenty miles away? Are the acorns the jay is burying all from the same tree or from trees from all over the city? Are the scrub jays burying acorns in my yard brothers and sisters or unrelated animals that seem to be helping each other out?

A map of the average genetic diversity of ten species of the protected status of desert lands in Southern California, Nevada, and Arizona. Hot spots of diversity are in the Coachella Valley, along the southern end of the Colorado and Gila Rivers, and along mountain ranges at the eastern edge of the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts. See endnote.


A few leaves from some trees, a few feathers from some birds, some natural history observations, and genomics can help answer all these questions and more. The answers can enrich our understanding of the natural world and help us better manage it.


Maps from “Comparative phylogeography reveals deep lineages and regional evolutionary hotspots in the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts,” Dustin A. Wood, Amy G. Vandergast, Kelly R. Barr, Rich D. Inman, Todd C. Esque, Kenneth E. Nussear, and Robert N. Fisher, Diversity and Distributions (2012), 1–16, DOI: 10.1111/ddi.12022.


Looking for Nature in LA

by Lila Higgins and Emily Hartop

The view from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

From Boom Fall 2014, Vol 4, No 3

Editor’s Note: The natural history museum is a venerable seventeenth-century institution. But curiously, it may well be one of the civic institutions best suited to help us think with nature in the twenty-first century. In recent years, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has reinvigorated both the “natural” and the “history” in its mission. The museum is reconnecting to the city around it and in the process discovering a vital role for itself in the life of the city and its future. Lila Higgins and Emily Hartop both work at the museum.

Lila Higgins writes:

I grew up in the British countryside, five miles from the closest city. My parents were both children of farming families, and I spent my early years living in and playing around farms. I had a huge home range, which included woods, hollow trees, streams, hedgerows, and derelict farm buildings. I searched for tadpoles in the farmer’s pond, pretended to be a badger, and once tried to dig up an ant’s nest to find the queen (sorry, ants). I was allowed to stay out until it got dark. Even when bad things happened—like the time I fell out of a rotten tree into a stream and lost a Wellington boot, or the time a puffball mushroom exploded all over my head while I was climbing inside a hollow tree—it was always an adventure. I developed a deep connection with nature and these adventures became the foundation of my more serious interest in nature exploration. When I moved to Southern California in the 1990s—the Inland Empire, to be exact—I didn’t so much experience culture shock as nature shock. The environment was just so different. In the suburbs, there were yards instead of gardens. These small parcels of land allotted to each house, fenced or walled off from your neighbors, were full of sharp prickly grass and other plants that had to be watered every day. As I walked through my neighborhood, I’d look into yards where my new neighbors were trying hard to mimic the landscape I’d just left behind in England. The yards made such a stark contrast to the San Gabriel Mountains that towered behind.

The hillsides and open spaces that abutted the mountains were brown, gray, and muted. Up until this point, nature for me had meant vibrant green hues and lots of them. It was difficult to believe that these small, scrubby plots could support life. But when I looked closer, I found a vast array of nature inhabiting California’s muted landscape. Charismatic mega- and minifauna were out there to be discovered. I was compelled to understand these new landscapes, to find nature in my new home.

Vaux’s swifts in Downtown Los Angeles. Photograph by Flickr user waltarrrrr.

Los Angeles is often cast as the iconic concrete jungle—it is the second largest urban agglomeration in the United States, with over thirteen million people residing in a metropolitan area of about five thousand square miles. It’s viewed as a place devoid of flora and fauna, and certainly devoid of anything worth caring about or studying. But this just isn’t true. The city sits in the southern portion of the California Floristic Province—one of thirty-five biodiversity hotspots in the world.

A biodiversity hotspot is a classification given by Conservation International. It denotes a place not just where there is an incredible range of biodiversity (there are over fifteen hundred species of vascular plants endemic to the California Floristic Province), but where species are under threat (over 75 percent of the natural vegetation has been lost here). This puts the vast majority of California on par with places like the island of Madagascar and the tropical Andes.

As soon as I moved to Los Angeles in 2009, I began looking for natural places to play. One of my first discoveries was Debs Park in northeast LA, home to the local Audubon center and miles of trails. The first time I explored it, I walked up a very steep path on the south side of the hill. It eventually led me to a stand of walnut trees where I heard an odd guttural gurgling sound. Big dark birds flew overhead, and I realized they were common ravens. As I began to explore, I turned a corner and my jaw dropped. I came upon a large pond at the very peak of the hill. It was the last thing I expected in this dry climate, but it was just so stunning. A big placid pond, ringed by green vegetation, with downtown LA as the backdrop—whoa!

I have come back to this spot many times. Sometimes I share this special place with the introduced species that call this pond home—the red-eared slider turtles, the American bullfrogs, and the mosquito fish. Other times I’m there watching children playing in the mud, searching for tadpoles—just as I did when I was a kid.

Downtown is home to what is probably the most awesome nature spectacle LA has to offer. Vaux’s swifts are small sickle-shaped birds that spend their days on the wing feeding on insects. Every spring they migrate from south of the Mexican border up the West Coast to their breeding grounds in the Pacific Northwest. In the fall, they stop off in LA for a breather on their way back. During the day, they hang out by the LA River and other open spaces, eating their fill of insects. But, every evening the group—which can range up to tens of thousands—comes home to roost in abandoned chimney shafts.

You can witness this massive influx of birds from the roof of a parking garage on Broadway. On one visit, I saw thousands of birds flitting around above us, and as sunset approached they began swirling toward the chimney. Soon, it became a very precise choreographed dance. The birds vortexed around and around, and on their last turn they neatly slipped down the chimney. The drama didn’t end there. We also saw hungry common ravens and even a peregrine falcon attack and catch a few of the swifts for dinner. Even in the heart of this urban megalopolis nature can still take your breath away.

Although I’ve still never seen a tarantula in LA proper (the closest was in Eaton Canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains), I have seen its arch nemesis—the tarantula hawk wasp. It was a hot, sunny day, only a few miles from downtown. I was out hunting for bugs in the Natural History Museum’s new Nature Gardens with the curator of entomology, Brian Brown. He was looking for flies, I was looking for anything that caught my eye—and there’s nothing that can quite catch your eye like a tarantula hawk! They are one of the largest wasps in Southern California, measuring in at an impressive one-and-a-half inches. Their exoskeletons are metallic blue with large orange wings, and long curly antennae. This particular wasp had no idea the ruckus it was causing. It placidly landed on a flowering coyote bush while Brian and I snapped pictures. It was the very first wasp of its kind recorded in the Nature Gardens. Naturally, I wondered: where is it going to find a tarantula?

The Nature Gardens were built on three-and-a-half acres of outdoor space surrounding the main Museum building in LA’s Exposition Park. Parking lots and lawns were transformed into an urban habitat—a place for wildlife to call home, and for visitors to experience and study nature in the city. But would it work? If we built an urban nature habitat, would any nature show up? The scientists said yes. Nature is everywhere in Los Angeles, and our gardens aren’t any different.

Brown was so certain about the new urban habitat he made a bet with a museum trustee: not only will nature show up in our new gardens, it would be as easy to find new species in Los Angeles as it was at his research sites in Costa Rica and Brazil. To prove the point, Brian set up an insect trap on an ivy-covered slope next to a swimming pool in a Brentwood backyard. After a week of collecting, the first fly Brian put under his microscope was a brand-new species, never before identified by science. In that same sample, Brian also discovered two other interesting flies, neither found before in North America.

The garden at the museum is an experiment, but we see the whole region as our laboratory. The trouble is there aren’t nearly enough scientists to study the whole thing, so we’ve turned to citizen scientists. Essentially, citizen science is a way to crowdsource research by engaging people in the scientific process. It’s an emerging field that the Natural History Museum’s scientists have been exploring since 1994 when ornithologist Kimball Garrett launched the California Parrot Project, looking at introduced parrot populations. Then, in 2002 we launched the Los Angeles Spider Survey to get a more accurate picture of which species live here. The project opened to all Angelenos, and in the first weekend, over one thousand specimens were submitted to the museum. Today we have almost six thousand local spider specimens in the entomology collection and a much better sense of spider diversity in the region.

Angelenos now have many citizen science projects they can participate in to help us better understand biodiversity in Los Angeles. The Reptile and Amphibians of Southern California project—or as the Museum’s herpetologist Greg Pauly nicknamed it, RASCals—calls on the twenty-two million people living in Southern California to document reptiles and amphibians by snapping photos with their smart phones. A nine-year-old boy, who found an interesting gecko in the San Fernando Valley, made one of the most interesting discoveries so far. Will Bernstein and his son Reese had found what they thought might be the local Western Banded Gecko. With the help of the Museum and herpetologist Bobby Espinoza of California State University, Northridge, it was identified as an introduced species from Europe, the Mediterranean House Gecko. To follow up on this discovery, a group of us went to Chatsworth on a lizard-hunting adventure. A number of curious homeowners helped us; and by the end of the night, we had determined there was, indeed, a population present in this neighborhood. It was an important moment—not only did we make a lasting scientific discovery but we found a neighborhood awake to the nature in their own backyards.

I’ve found that the best way to experience urban nature is to just take a walk. I walk around my Koreatown neighborhood often and stop to photograph European garden snails, grasshoppers, roadkill (which I later submit to a citizen science project called the California Roadkill Observation System), and a slime mold aptly called dog’s vomit slime. The beauty of nature in the city is that anyone can participate in its discovery—not just scientists—and every Angeleno can contribute to a project that interests them.

Urban planners and conservation biologists can use data from these projects to help make decisions that shape the very fabric of the city. Collectively, the data has potential to alter the city. The hope, of course, is that when the datasets are larger and closer to complete, we’ll all be able to make more holistic decisions. Who better to engage in the process of gathering this data than the residents of the city themselves?

But it isn’t all about data collection. It’s also about the joy of adventure and discovery. It isn’t just about the science. It’s about communing with the wild creatures and plants that live around us. Together, we’re working toward a new urban paradigm—one in which a city is designed for the betterment of humans and wildlife alike. Get out and explore your city, find the wildlife that lives here, and help to make the Los Angeles of the future.

Emily Hartop writes:

As a child of Los Angeles, I cherished a worn copy of the Usborne Book of the Future: A Trip in Time to the Year 2000 and Beyond. Published in 1979, the book was filled with all sorts of fantastic imagery and ideas that were fun to dream about but, alas, didn’t come true come the turn of the millennium. What I remember most about the book was a spread entitled “Two Trips to the 21st Century” that featured pictures of two possible futures, two outcomes dependent on mankind’s choices. One was dark, dreary, polluted, and practically uninhabitable; the other was bright, green, thriving.

I remember thinking that Los Angeles seemed to be headed toward the bleak future—with the smog enveloping us, the trash overwhelming us, the concrete and asphalt taking over the Earth. In 2014, I’m surprised to find that I’m feeling a bit better about the future. I look around Los Angeles today and see a thriving natural world in the heart of the city.

But what, exactly, is thriving out there? At BioSCAN—the acronym stands for Biodiversity Science: City and Nature—at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, we’re trying to find out.

Urban biodiversity is an understudied subject. Researchers often travel to the tropics or other exotic locales to study nature, but studying the biodiversity in their own cities back home has often seemed, well, far too pedestrian. That’s changing now. Studies of urban ecosystems have been conducted in several cities in the United States, and a number of large studies are underway internationally.

In Los Angeles, BioSCAN is undertaking a study of unprecedented scope and scale: millions of insects will be collected at thirty sampling sites around the city for three years. Unlike the majority of urban biodiversity studies, which have surveyed birds and reptiles, BioSCAN’s subjects have short lifespans and ranges. But they are members of a class that constitutes the majority of animals on Earth, and they are ideal study subjects because insects often reflect hyper-local, small-scale, and short-term changes in environments.

To understand biodiversity in the context of any city, you must frame your study within the context of that specific city: its history, geography, culture, and economy. Los Angeles is a city of backyards, so we are using private backyards for twenty-six of our thirty study sites (the remaining four are at a community garden, a school, the Los Angeles Eco-Village, and in the Natural History Museum’s Nature Gardens). The thirty sites cover a fifteen-mile transect across Los Angeles. Each study site hosts a Malaise trap—a tent-like structure used to capture flying insects—and a weather station to collect environmental data. Insects enter the traps and fall into a bottle of ethanol. Samples are collected weekly. There are hundreds and sometimes thousands of insects in each sample.

Brian Brown, the museum’s curator of entomology, dreamed up the project and oversees the small army that keeps it humming along. The first specimen processing is done by a group of work-study students from the University of Southern California who have been trained to sort insects to order, a taxonomic level that separates the flies from the bees from the beetles. Once sorted, the insects are handed off to the two resident BioSCAN entomologists, Lisa Gonzalez and me. Lisa and I do the detailed sorting, pulling out specific families of insects to send to collaborators around the world. We also keep our eyes out for anything unusual. Interesting finds appear on the BioSCAN blog or are studied further for scientific publication.

BioSCAN’s own insect family of focus is the Phoridae, or scuttle flies. These tiny flies are mega-diverse—there are approximately four thousand different species in this one family of flies—and extremely plentiful. In a single backyard sample, it is not uncommon to have hundreds of individual specimens made up of dozens of species. I spend much of my time staring through a microscope at these tiny flies, sorting one Angeleno species of phorid from one another. In addition to pitching in on the sorting, Lisa collects the data and samples from the study sites. She put up the thirty BioSCAN traps, maintains them, and is our ambassador to the families that host the traps in their backyards.

None of this would be possible without these hosts, who have devoted parts of their backyards to science for three years. Their individual interests in the project vary—some are museum members who want to be more involved; some want their children to grow up watching real science at work in their own backyard. We have artists, a student, teachers, a lawyer, a retired doctor, and even a roboticist as site hosts. We have a retired curator of entomology as well as a watershed ambassador to the Urban Waters Federal Partnership. We have a map specialist who works at LA’s Central Library, and we have a woman who has volunteered her time with the entomology department at the museum for decades. We have people who love insects and people who are learning to love insects.

The first study sites have been running since 2012, and already we are seeing striking differences between trap catches in different areas. This is exciting, because it means there are correlations to be made with environmental factors at play in different neighborhoods. A site that borders the LA River is different from a site bordering nearby Griffith Park, which is again different from a site in the midst of the urban core. In all traps, we are seeing many recognizable creatures, but we are also finding a number of species new to science. These undescribed species aren’t a huge surprise because extensive work on entomological diversity in Los Angeles has never been done before—but they sure are intriguing and a thrill to discover!

We are also investigating which of the species we see are introduced from other parts of the world. Preliminary data indicate that the number of these cosmopolitan species may be substantial—no mystery given LA’s history. The last 150 years have seen a tiny pueblo mushroom to a sprawling urban center of millions, complete with the largest port in the country. The growth and change in the last century didn’t just bring people. As Carey McWilliams wrote in Southern California: An Island on the Land, “Southern California is man-made, a gigantic improvisation. Virtually everything in the region has been imported: plants, flowers, shrubs, trees, people, water, electrical energy, and, to some extent, even the soils.” The iconic palm trees lining Sunset Boulevard, the groves of eucalyptus in Malibu, the papery riotous blossoms of the bougainvillea, the citrus industry that created an empire were all brought in from elsewhere. With all that wonderful, fragrant, colorful, delicious fauna came insects—some pests, some beneficial. When pests were discovered, people brought in pests of the pests for control. Sometimes that worked beautifully; other times they kept going, bringing in still more introduced species. But the vast majority of the insect aliens in the city undoubtedly arrived accidently.

Right now we’re finding out what’s here. The first step of BioSCAN is piecing together this massive inventory of the entomological fauna of Los Angeles. This will continue over the next three years of sampling. Then we can begin using the data to help explain the differences in biodiversity that we see. These results can eventually be used to educate citizens and inform city policy.

We are working closely with ecologists to look at all the factors affecting biodiversity in Los Angeles neighborhoods. Once we know how these factors affect biodiversity, we may be able to manipulate them intelligently to maximize biodiversity, help people make informed decisions about their private backyard spaces, and shape public policy. These data from citizen science could help us create a more natural city. But we aren’t looking to some mythical pristine past for the answers. We can’t go back. But we can go forward with a better awareness of the nature we have and the nature we could have in LA.


Photographs by Lila Higgins unless otherwise noted.


Nature’s Haunted House

by D.J. Waldie

From Boom Fall 2014, Vol 4, No 3

A View from Bixby Hill. Sometimes I go up on a hill that overlooks the concrete box of the San Gabriel River where the river flows into Alamitos Bay in Long Beach. From there, you see nature. Wetlands drained for oil production lie below, as do tracts of houses and the congested asphalt ribbon of the Pacific Coast Highway. Most of what I see had been owned by the Bixby family of Long Beach. The Bixbys farmed, grazed sheep and cattle, and raised draft horses from 1878 until the suburban boom of the 1950s. In the 1920s, the Bixbys began pumping oil from their wetlands and hired renowned landscape architects—Florence Yoch and the Olmsted brothers, as well as Paul J. Howard, William Hertrich, and Allen Chickering among them—to lay out four acres of sophisticated gardens surrounding the Bixby homestead.

The Bixbys weren’t the first to cultivate their hill. They were preceded by a Yankee Californio, a former Mexican governor of Alta California, a Spanish “leather jacket” soldier, his heirs, and during the preceding 3,000 years by Native Americans whose descendants know the hill as the place where human beings emerged into a world bounded by shoreline, river, floodplain, and foothills. Mingled there in time are mestizo vaqueros, Chinese laborers, Belgian tenant farmers, Japanese lease farmers, and Mexican ranch hands who fleetingly possessed a portion of what nature around Bixby Hill yielded to them. Those sojourners persist in the hill’s cultural and natural present as a midden of shells, family stories, photographs, an allée of trees, gardens, a house, some barns, and records in a ledger.

The hilltop—what remains of historic Los Alamitos—was the Bixbys’ home, the headquarters of their business, and a place where personalities are still interwoven with the landscape. Preserved from further development in 1968, the hilltop remains an earthen umbilicus into sacred time for the native community. It’s also a richly layered site for interrogating the past and challenging what might be made of it by today’s visitors.¹

From my perspective, no part of what I see from Bixby Hill is privileged over any other solely by its relationship to nature. The view from the hill has always been from nature and into nature. To decompose the view into parts more or less natural imposes values to which nature is indifferent. No place, I think, is more than any other place.

The View from Graywood Avenue. All of us have a capacity for topographical inwardness, mapped on the brain’s hippocampus by aptly named “place cells” with the aid of a class of memory proteins we share with rats, fruit flies, and even snails. Other brain structures—called “grid cells”—seem to provide a framework for integrating motion with position. Rats have that same framework. With this apparatus—subtly joined to brain centers for pleasure and avoidance—we each navigate our own affective space in which location, impression, and recollection are recorded and coordinated. Projected onto environmental landmarks, affective space is externalized as Jérôme Monnet’s “vernacular geography” to make wayfaring habitual and capable of being shared with others on the journey.

“The city and my body supplement and define each other,” wrote Juhani Pallasmaa in The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses. “I dwell in the city and the city dwells in me.”² Neuroscience tells me that I inhabit my place and quite literally, my place inhabits me.

My place is Graywood Avenue on land that was once the Bixbys’ until it was turned to sugar beet production in the 1890s, then to truck farming, and to a grid of tens of thousands of small houses on small lots after 1950. My place is presumed—because suburban—to be uniquely featureless, anesthetized, standardized, and denatured.³

Graywood Avenue in fact is complex, enmeshed in narratives, and a zone of contact with nature near at hand and global. Because we do not know everything there is to be known about nature, negligent observers overlook its appearance and effects in places like mine. Nature’s appearance on Graywood Avenue is profoundly ordinary. Its effects are habitual and reciprocal. They’re in the touch I give it and expect to receive in return. Nature on Graywood Avenue is pitiless, yet I welcome its inhuman contact and appropriate it into my affective space.

The Paradox of Nature. The materials of Graywood Avenue were so meager at its beginning in 1950—just earth, air, sunlight, and too little water—but from these essences was assembled a landscape for my life and my neighbors’ that has satisfied so many of our desires. Embedded in that landscape is the paradox of nature on Graywood Avenue.

A cynic would object, “There’s no nature there. The ground is covered with tract houses. The air overhead is a petrochemical byproduct. Your water flows from conspiracies designed to obscure that you live in a semi-desert. Pavement marches to your horizon in every direction.”

Graywood Avenue is an asphalt and stucco fraction of the nearly uniform grid of Los Angeles, but nature is never absent. I walk down Graywood Avenue and nature’s reciprocal penetration always manages to break through my self-absorption. The tracks of snails glisten on the sidewalk. The stink of an irritated skunk lingers in the morning air. A coyote and I sometimes pause at the end of my block and watch each other before the coyote lopes into the Edison Company right-of-way. Mourning doves, mocking birds, scrub jays, and house sparrows accompany me, either in person or as a fugue of their calls interweaving overhead.

A woodpecker was working at the bark of a backyard elm for several days this spring. I’d never heard that before. Mitered conures flock over my street. They’re immigrant parrots from the south. I’ve seen hawks perched on the dishes of my neighbors’ satellite television receivers. My walk is often punctuated by the warning cries of juvenile crows.

The young crows are giving advice to other crows that I’m passing through their nature just as the crows are passing through mine. My suburban street is utterly commonplace but it’s also common ground for the crows and for me where nature is shared at every scale to shape our behavior. I live nowhere but in nature’s suburb, just as much the crows’ as it’s mine. I’m offered every opportunity to be wrapped in everyday nature there.

The Place Where You Are. Bixby Hill and Graywood Avenue, otherwise so different, share a characteristic of authentic places. They both enfold specificities of landscape, history, and memory and have the capacity to be what geographer Doreen Massey calls a “locality.”4 Rightly experienced, the localism of the hill and the avenue isn’t a refuge of nostalgia or a bunker of communal exclusion. The hill and the avenue are meeting places. I turn there with a tropism for the “sensations, expectations, daydreams, encounters, and habits of relating. . . that catch people up in something that feels like something.”5 The something that feels and the something felt reside together. The crows experience me. I experience the crows. We make a world in that encounter while it lasts.

In recent years, the crows have brought news of a world beyond Graywood Avenue. The crows have been infected—and as carriers, helped infect me and some of my neighbors—with the West Nile virus. The crows died from it, recovered in numbers, and died again in each following spring, ever fewer as the crows, the mosquitoes, the virus, and my neighbors and I edged toward an inevitable balance of living and dying. The local isn’t self-enclosed or estranged. It’s penetrated by what’s outside. It’s risky. The local is engaged in ways that compel me, following the example of the crows, to ignore the insufficient dualities of the domesticated and the wild that still frame what we mean when we talk about California and nature.

Humans in the landscape have mixed the categories. Beginning 13,000 years ago, indigenous people actively changed California’s ecosystems to suit the demands of their desires, resulting in changes that marked their cultural systems as changes are marking ours.6 It’s tempting to see only epitaphs in our contemporary California landscape, but was the outcome of any human settlement ever more than “history turned into nature?”7 That’s what it means to live in a place in the company of other people.

A Sense of Place. Farewell, Promised Land: Waking from the California Dream is an elegy for the state’s manhandled landscapes with photographs by Robert Dawson and text by geographer Gray Brechin.8 Near the end of the book is a panorama of the Gerbode Valley, a ten-minute drive from the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge. The significance of the valley for Brechin is what’s missing from Dawson’s photograph—the rows of houses and grid of cul-de-sac streets that were to have been built in the 1960s until, with the help of the Nature Conservancy in 1972, the land was purchased and made part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The photograph of the Gerbode Valley shows undulating hills, grass sweeping up to their summits, and the meander of a dirt road. What’s significant to me is that everything pictured in the photograph had been touched by human intention, perhaps (for all I know) not through greed or ignorance but love. By setting this land apart, nature has not been made to triumph over the history of the Gerbode Valley. Rather, a community has adapted a historically conditioned place for its use. For the houses to remain absent, the valley will forever require the presence of a community on its periphery.

The empty Gerbode Valley, the cultivated hilltop of Rancho Los Alamitos, and the prosaic lawns of Graywood Avenue require communities with an equivalent sense of place to make them inhabitable by our daydreams, our bodies, and ourselves. It’s only aesthetic sensibility that separates localities and disparages some of those places by denying inhabitants the meaning of the space they occupy. There are better and worse places to be, of course, but embodied knowledge, essentially critical, may arise in any of them. “This is,” anthropologist Kathleen Stewart writes, “the ordinary affect in the textured, roughened surface of the everyday.” From the embodied knowledge of the everyday comes “politics of all kinds with the demand that some kind of intimate public of onlookers recognize something in a space of shared impact,” writes Stewart.9

A sense of place isn’t the acquisition of an idiosyncratic sensibility but a communal achievement that requires something from all those who dwell in common. I have to call it a “moral imagination”—the sympathetic imagination by which I write myself into the story of my place, inhabit it as my home, and negotiate a way from the purely personal there to the public.

Proportions of Heron to Concrete. A few years ago and a few miles from Graywood Avenue, a crowd of 300 gathered on the west bank of the San Gabriel River in Lakewood and waited to take a walk. The mayor made a speech first. Afterward, a park supervisor showed slides of California native shrubs and trees. Then the audience turned out on the mile-long trail that city officials dedicated that day to the enjoyment of nature. But what nature was that?

Both banks of the San Gabriel River are public land. The trail under Edison Company transmission lines meanders on the west bank. A park with picnic shelters, baseball diamonds, an equestrian center, and bridal paths fills the east bank. Most of that is under power lines, too. It took thirty years for the city of Lakewood to assemble this green corridor that edges rows of modest tract houses, so the riverbanks have a mixed look. Mature eucalyptus trees tower eastward; newly established elderberries are clumped along the trail.

The walkers looked down from the trail into the river. Water ran in the “low flow” slot down the middle; concrete on either side glared. Two egrets—white plumes against white concrete—stood motionless at the edge of the slot as the walkers passed above them. A pelican skimmed to a perfect water landing. After a moment, it rose in company with a heron that was almost lavender in the winter light.

Is that nature? And if it is (as I think it is) what should the proportion of concrete to heron be?

The channel of the San Gabriel River (like the Los Angeles River) is supposed to be where nature dead-ends, but only if nature is only to be found in the kind of place where John Muir, nineteenth-century prophet of wilderness, would worship. Nature in my neighborhood was never so misplaced. Nature is here, like the patient heron in the flood control channel, and it only requires a greater intimacy, like the riverside trail, to begin to restore us to it. For decision-makers, urban planners, and us, the proportion of heron to concrete should matter less than the intimacy.

In writing about nature in Los Angeles, the city she adopted as her hometown, historian Jenny Price collapses the clichés of dream and nightmare, suburb and wilderness that obscure Los Angeles like smog. For Price, “our foundational nature stories should see, but also cherish and sacralize, our mundane, economic, utilitarian, daily encounters with nature—so that what car you drive and how you get your water and how you build a house should be transparent acts that are as sacred as hiking to the top of Red Rock Canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains and gazing out over the Pacific Ocean. . . .”10

“Nature is a Haunted House . . . “11 I have an intense recollection of a day in late summer. I’m very young. I’m playing hide-and-seek in our house with my brother. It’s the time of the evening that still seems bright, but shadows begin to fill. The house is small—less than 1,000 square feet—but because I’m small too, this diminished space seems large to me. I’m standing in the doorway to the bedroom I would go on sharing with my brother for nearly twenty years. Then the last of the light goes from the room as if precipitated from the air. A presence is in the room, wonderful and terrible. My knees actually knock out of fear. The uncanny room is ghost-ridden, but it’s because I’m haunting myself.

The ordinary is not emptied of possibilities by familiarity or domestication. The everyday is expectant, arriving laden with a burden of history and unfolding into moments of joy and tragedy. Manners of knowing are lived into being there. Sometimes they produce terrors; sometimes consolations. The ordinary never lacks trajectories into and out of the sensuous matter of what is being lived. Nature is interleaving everywhere, necessarily complicit and implicated and authoritative.

In another photograph in Farewell, Promised Land, a backhoe is raking through the muck of a California streambed while an overseer looks on. Without the caption, it’s impossible to tell if this is an image of environmental destruction or redemption. It happens to be attempted redemption, but not knowing for sure is part of what it means to be aware in the nature we’ve made, and alive to the results of putting in the landscape all kinds of people, including working people, immigrant people, undocumented people, and some people who may never form a moral imagination at all.

The writer Barry Lopez considered some years ago what’s needed to make a home in California in the way the Bixbys did on their hill and my neighbors have on Graywood Avenue. Lopez insisted that a site becomes home only when you become vulnerable to the place where you are. Lopez’s meditation on vulnerability was instigated by the place where he grew up—a tract-house neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. In questioning his suburb’s presumed distance from transformative encounter, Lopez discovered that “always when I return, I have found again the ground that propels me past the great temptation of our time, to put one’s faith in despair.”12 From a place usually disregarded, Lopez had welled up something like redemption.

As histories turn into the nature that receives and reciprocates touch, a kind of intelligence emerges within the affective space each of us embodies. A specter, it ghosts through a space of “affinities and impacts that take place in the moves of intensity across things that seem solid and dead.”13 The solid things melt into reminiscence and daydream in that movement. The dead pick up a conversation with the human spirit that haunts them. Some music comes out of the sky as birdsong, and pervading nature (which does not care) makes room for a self and a place in humble, loving attendance on each other.


All photographs by Luke Jaffar.

1 The Bixby family’s stewardship of Rancho Los Alamitos is a remarkable record of continuity as both a home and the center of a thriving agribusiness from the late nineteenth century into the middle of the twentieth. Preservation of Bixby Hill and its layers of rancho history were made possible by a gift from the Bixby heirs to the City of Long Beach of the 7.5 surviving acres of Rancho Los Alamitos in 1968. See Rancho Los Alamitos: Ever Changing, Always the Same by Claudia Jurmain, David Lavender, Larry L. Meyer (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2011). For more about the rancho’s place in the dialogue of place, conservation, preservation, and community in Southern California, go to the Rancho Los Alamitos website at http://www.rancholosalamitos.com.

2 Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2013), 43.

3 The social historian James Howard Kunstler famously denounced the tract-house suburb to an audience of “new urbanists” as the place “where evil dwells” in 1999. (Kunstler, “Where Evil Dwells: Reflections on the Columbine School Massacre,” a paper delivered at the Congress for the New Urbanism, 6 June 1999.)

4 Doreen Massey, Space, Place and Gender (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 146 et seq. Massey argues for a transitive conception of locality. “Instead then, of thinking of places as areas with boundaries around, they can be imagined as articulated moments in networks of social relations and understandings, but where a larger proportion of those relations, experiences and understandings are constructed on a far larger scale than what we happen to define for that moment as the place itself, whether that be a street, or a region or even a continent.”

5 Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 1.

6 For the premodern shaping of the landscape around Bixby Hill and Graywood Avenue, see the chapters “Political Ecology of Prehistoric Los Angeles” by L. Mark Rabb and “The Los Angeles Prairie” by Paul M. Schiffman in Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Metropolitan Los Angeles, William Deverell and Greg Hise, eds. (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005).

7 Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 78.

8 Robert Dawson and Gray Brechin, Farewell, Promised Land: Waking from the California Dream (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

9 Stewart, Ordinary Affects, 39.

10 Jenny Price, “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A., Part I,” Believer, April 2006, accessed 2 June 2014 at http://www.believermag.com/issues/200604/? read=article_ price#.U40EhvldV8E.

11 Emily Dickinson, The Letters of Emily Dickenson, L 459a to Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986). In full, Dickinson’s letter reads “Nature is a Haunted House – but Art – a House that tries to be haunted.”

12 Barry Lopez, “A Scary Abundance of Water,” LA Weekly, 9 July 2002, accessed 1 June 2014 at http://www.laweekly.com/2002-01-17/news/a-scary-abundance-of-water.

13 Stewart, Ordinary Affects, 127.


Outdoor Afro

Jon Christensen interviews Rue Mapp and Carolyn Finney

The Boom Interview

From Boom Fall 2014, Vol 4, No 3

Carolyn Finney and Rue Mapp. Photograph by James Edward Mills http://www.joytripproject.com

Editor’s Note: We asked Carolyn Finney and Rue Mapp to talk with us because their work is at the very heart of thinking about people and nature in California, in all of its glorious and challenging diversity. It only occurred to us later that their work and this conversation is also an apt illustration of what we’re trying to do with Boom: bring important, innovative thinkers and doers from our great universities into conversation with important, innovative thinkers and doers out in the world.

Carolyn Finney is an assistant professor of environmental science, policy, and management at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the new book Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors (University of North Carolina Press, 2014). She is a member of the National Parks Advisory Board and is a member of California’s Parks Forward Commission.

Rue Mapp is the CEO and founder of Outdoor Afro, a social community that reconnects African Americans with natural spaces and one another through recreational activities such as camping, hiking, biking, birding, fishing, gardening, skiing, and more. Outdoor Afro aims to disrupt the false perception that black people do not have a relationship with nature and works to shift the visual representation of who can connect with the outdoors.

Finney and Mapp, of course, have been in conversation with each other for many years. They met with Boom editor Jon Christensen at Mapp’s house in Oakland, California.

Jon Christensen: I’m curious: what is the first question that you usually get asked about your work?

Rue Mapp: Often it’s not a question. It’s a reaction. When I say Outdoor Afro, a lot of times people laugh, and I’m okay with that because Outdoor Afro, the name, is meant to disarm and be fun and accessible, but, at the same time, concise. So we know who we’re talking about, and we know what we’re talking about.

Carolyn Finney: Because I’m in academia—and I never call myself an academic, I work in academia—people want to know what information I have. They somehow assume that it’s not personal for me. And for me, this is an entirely personal endeavor.

The other thing people say, when I say I’m interested in the issue of difference, of race, they say, “Oh, so you’re doing environmental justice.” Just because I’m talking about black people, they think I’m talking about environmental justice. First of all, that’s a disservice to those who very specifically do environmental justice work. But secondly, just because I’m black and I’m talking about black people doesn’t mean I’m only talking about the “bad” things that happen to us. We actually have great ideas. We’re actually quite creative. We want to contribute.

Christensen: I remember when Rue and I first met, it was in Yosemite, and we were at a meeting of conservationists and environmental activists who were concerned about connecting with diverse Californians. Their first question seemed to be: “How can we get these people to appreciate nature?”

Finney: The assumption is that they’re not engaged! So often the well-intentioned action of saying we’re going to go out and engage this community means that you can’t see what’s already creative and generative within the community. So, for me, it’s about building a relationship, as opposed to saying that with all that good intention we’re going to go get you to come do what we’re doing. Maybe they are doing something really great. Maybe you should try to figure out how you can get involved with that and support that!

Mapp: Give me a nickel for every time that I hear someone saying, “I take the children from the community.” It’s always children. Never mind their parents, their grandparents, people who could be contributors. Well meaning people say “I take the kids and we take them to this—insert wild place.” The next line is always, “And they’ve never seen—insert wild thing.” And, “Oh, my goodness, we’ve really done something.” But you really have just made yourself feel good. You’ve taken your picture for your newsletter. But what happens when that child goes back home? Or how is that connection that child makes related to what that child’s generational experience is, or community experience, or day-to-day life is? People are not talking about that. I think that we have this opportunity to be a little bit more bold than the pedestrian way that people have thought about differences, and who we’re talking about within those differences, and recognizing the diversity within the differences, when we’re talking about specific groups of people.

Finney: And there are many people who don’t believe they’re separate from nature in the first place! It’s like, “Are you breathing?” You have a relationship with nature, whether you’re conscious of it or not. Even the privileging of a point of view that humans and nature are separate puts groups of people that tend to be either people of color, or indigenous people on the margins, because they have a different way of looking at the world. We miss all the knowledge and experience and the wisdom and the possibility that come from having a different point of view. Because, partially, historically, they had to have a different point of view. They had to negotiate all these rules and laws and policies that were put in place that inhibited their ability to do certain things. So, for example, people have gone on to create their own black beaches in the South because they weren’t allowed to go to the white beaches during Jim Crow segregation. And now they’re celebrating that. We’ve done this throughout history—found ways to create and express our own stories. And we are still doing it, whether it’s community gardens or environmental justice. We’re not always going to wait for someone to invite us into the space.

Mapp: When I go out on a hike, I see people who look like me all the time. And I’m like, why is it then that when we have these conversations we’re assuming that people are not engaged? Are people not out here seeing what I’m seeing? I think that people engage with those natural spaces in proportion to their populations and their opportunities. So if you go to Lake Merritt in Oakland, for instance, right now, it will look like the United Nations. But if we drive three hours north, where there really aren’t a lot of black people who live in that local area, surprise, surprise, you’re not going to be bathed in blackness when you go to places like that.

I think we can capture what’s already happening and stop making it into a problem when you don’t see more diversity in areas that are remote. If you’re a busy, working family and you may even work on the weekend—there are a lot of assumptions about free time, privilege, access to transportation that often get applied to you. When I ask Outdoor Afros what the number one reason is that they’re not getting out, it isn’t about historical stuff usually. It is: how can I practically fit outdoor experiences into my life? So I just think sometimes this issue gets so weighted down. And we’re not capturing what’s already happening, and not thinking more practically about what people’s lives really are, and how local parks might be able to fit in people’s lives in ways that are relevant and appropriate.

Finney: People are doing stuff all the time outside, especially in the city. It makes me crazy, this idea that somehow nature isn’t in the city and that people aren’t in nature in the city. I want to say, really? I see people out in gardens, or playing outside, or doing whatever they’re doing. They’re outside in nature. Not everybody is going to Yosemite. Not everybody should necessarily go to Yosemite. And not everybody wants to go to Yosemite. But all those assumptions are there. So how can we support people where they live?

Mapp: And not privilege some types of outdoor activity over other ones! You get people who say, ugh, car camping, no! And, really, for some people, especially for people who now have children or who maybe cannot take the time away to go farther, car camping at your regional park is your gateway experience. I find that, especially in working with the larger outdoor industry and with other stakeholders, that it’s all about how we get people to experience these pristine, remote experiences. For someone to go from East Oakland to the backcountry wilderness, maybe they don’t want to. So we have to be really responsible about how we reintroduce and imagine what’s appropriate for people to experience. I know that you get some real strong guys out there—and they might be real tough in an urban context—but place them out in the middle of nowhere, where there’s no door to lock, and they hear sounds that they’re not accustomed to hearing in the city. That’s a big ask! So it’s been a big part of my job to think compassionately of many different ways that people could engage with the outdoors. We need to ask people what they want, and actually do those things that they want to do, versus me deciding for them what outdoor engagement needs to look like.

Christensen: How did you come to create Outdoor Afro?

Mapp: I started using social media as a vehicle to tell our story, to help shift the visual representation of who gets outdoors. People responded by sharing with me images of getting outdoors in all kinds of ways, all over the country. And then I was using that platform to tell those stories. These are the stories that are not picked up in the mainstream magazines. So that disrupts the assumption that black people don’t get outdoors. Because oftentimes people lead with the question—”Why don’t black people hike?” or whatever. Black people might not call it “hiking,” but we’re still out in nature, walking, or strolling, or skipping, or whatever. So it’s also disrupting the language of how we talk about it. And it’s also disrupting that usual representation.

And what’s happened, unfortunately, is that black people, without seeing our images reflected back these spaces, people buy into it. And then when you see yourself in those spaces, in nature, images that look like you, there is an embedded invitation. It’s not just disruption for its own sake, but also to welcome people in places and spaces, or help remind people of their connection to those places and spaces.

Photograph by James Edward Mills http://www.joytripproject.com

Christensen: Carolyn, we know from your research and the research of others that the demographic composition of the National Park Service’s staff does not represent the diversity of America’s population, nor do visitors to parks. The agency is trying to address both of those issues. What are the challenges?

Finney: I am not interested in demonizing or vilifying the park service, because the truth is the National Park Service is part of this country, so it only reflects what this country reflects. And it was founded at a very particular time, during segregation, and just coming off slavery. And the Native Americans had their lands taken away from them, and sometimes that land became a national park. Our history is very complicated. Black people weren’t allowed to go to participate in the same way that Euro Americans could. We know that context, that history, is real, and the parks were created within that. More diverse people are coming into the park service now, but it was still largely white and largely male for a long time. It also has a military background. It’s really important to think about the way it’s structured. It’s also important to remember that it’s a government institution, a federal institution, so it has all the baggage that comes with that, as well.

What are the challenges to build the capacity of the organization to actually engage difference? Oh my gosh, they would really have to look at all those layers. It’s not going to happen overnight. I think that one of the biggest challenges the park service is having now— with more than 400 units in the park service—each park is almost its own little entity under this larger umbrella. So part of the challenge is that you may have a superintendent at one park where the issue of difference and diversity is big and important and central, so they are personally motivated to actually engage. And then you have a superintendent in another park who privileges other priorities. And you’re going to have some superintendents that aren’t interested in it at all, and don’t think that diversity should be pursued. And those that do pursue diversity don’t always have the resources they need to do the work.

One of the things that I’ve been saying for a long time is if you want to work on diversity but you have to do it in a calendar year, with limited funding, the odds are it’s not going to happen. It’s a long-term investment. It’s a long-term practice. There is no end. So that means, particularly at the front end, you have to really be invested in making those changes. You have to apply your resources to that—your people resources, your money resources, your time resources, the willingness and the ability to actually revisit everything, from pamphlets that you put out for your interpretive exhibits to who you’re hiring to run your intern programs. Everything. It’s huge. The National Park Service is like this big ship, and you have to turn it now. It’s hard to do, and I actually have a lot of empathy for that.

The Park Service is an agency that’s made up of people, people with very particular ideas about difference and diversity. They bring those ideas with them. Nobody leaves their stuff at home. They bring their values, their beliefs, their perspectives, their capacities, and their competencies with them wherever they go. So now some people are saying, “Now we have to engage diverse peoples.” But what if they’ve got no skills at doing that or they’ve got no interest in doing that? You’ve got people who aren’t interested and don’t want to do anything, who don’t care, who don’t know how to, who are afraid, who don’t like you if you’re different. So what do you do with that? You can’t brush it under the carpet or just apply a rule that everyone has to engage diversity. How do you weed that out? How do you change that? What does that mean? That’s hard to do.

Then you’ve got different communities, and you need to build relationships with those communities. Yes, we can talk very specifically about the national parks, but for me the national parks are about something larger too, not just engaging people with nature. The parks were largely founded on this idea that the United States was trying to create an image of who we were to the rest of the world. We have Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. We don’t have our old cathedrals and old buildings like they do in Europe. We have a landscape and natural resources that are simply tremendous. So those in the position to do so created a narrative out of this about who we are.

Photograph by James Edward Mills http://www.joytripproject.com


Photograph by James Edward Mills http://www.joytripproject.com

Christensen: There is this idea that we’re nature’s nation. That’s part of the message of the national parks. But is the question whose nation, whose nature?

Finney: Right, and who counts. And wait a minute, whose land was that before, anyway? There is so much that’s problematic about it. And for me it’s not about beating ourselves up over that, because for me that’s a waste of time. And it’s a way not to take responsibility. So you feel bad. How do we engage that legacy? How do we understand that? How do we tell a story that actually engages what’s painful and difficult, because, for me, that’s authentic—not that you have an answer for it, but that you’re willing to actually look at that and go, “Oh, crap. Some of that’s kind of messed up.”

Christensen: So you’ve been involved in trying to change that. How’s it going?

Finney: One of the things that most of us were saying to the National Park Service was: “Let’s do this thing!” The park service decided to have these community conversations and wanted to see if we could have six or seven. We were all gung-ho. We had our first conversation in Cuyahoga National Park a couple of years ago, and it was wildly successful. It was great. It was so successful that they had to stop having the conversations for a while, because they didn’t have the capacity to actually hold the fruits of it. All these friend groups in the community were like, “Okay, we’re ready to do it!” It was great. And then the park staff was overloaded. They had full-time jobs already.

Mapp: And this goes to the issue that comes up time and time again: what do you do with the information? Do you even have the capacity to not only hold the information, but to act on that information?

Finney: Now we’re rethinking it. We are going to pull back from the community conversations and really look at what conversations have to happen within the park service. So it feels like it’s stalled out. But, actually, this is where they have to do a lot of the work. I’m an adviser. I’m not part of the park service. And I’m not going to tell anybody what to do. I don’t have the know-how or the right to do that. I’m here, along with others, to work with them and support them. But they have to work that stuff out.

Christensen: You’re also on the Parks Forward Commission here in California, which is working on reforming state parks. How is that going? And are the challenges different from the national parks or similar?

Photograph by James Edward Mills http://www.joytripproject.com

Finney: Remember, we’re all in the same country, with the same challenges, as far as I’m concerned. At a macro level, the challenge with the California State Parks is not so different from the National Park Service. They’re trying to engage these ideas, but you can’t do it if you don’t get your house straight. That’s the thing. That is so clear.

Christensen: Rue, what’s your experience with this kind of work?

Photograph by James Edward Mills http://www.joytripproject.com

Mapp: I really value working outside of systems, outside of the bureaucratic formats, because I’m an entrepreneur. And my instinct as an entrepreneur is to be amenable, to test assumptions constantly. Scale if it’s working, and dump it if it’s not. I just find that nonprofit structures and governmental structures can’t easily lend themselves to that kind of flexibility. And I feel like right now there’s such urgency. We talked a little bit about environmental justice. But the climate disruption that we’re living with right now is real and we’ve got to get people on track and get engaged with what’s happening. Like right now. Not tomorrow. But it won’t come any sooner than when there is an authentic and relevant relationship with our environment, so that people really can understand the complexities and how we’re all connected in this big conversation.

Outdoor Afro started as a blog, a place to share my personal experiences. And then that conversation quickly became a national one. Because of the platform that social media provided, it really leveled the playing field of communication, where from my home, I could touch exactly who I wanted to touch. It wasn’t, back then, pay to play. The algorithms are completely different now. And you’ve got to really have a commitment to invest financially to reach the kind of audience I was reaching back then for free. So it was a real golden time to have that particular conversation, and also reach the scale that we did.

People then started sharing their own stories and photos with me. And I was pushing those stories and those images out. But people wanted to go to that next step. They wanted to actually go out in nature with people who looked like them. And many already had relationships with nature, through family, like maybe fishing and gardening. Maybe they lived in the city and wanted to reconnect. So people asked me to find a way to get that connection back. And using social media, we invited people to be leaders in the outdoors, and brought together the first group of leaders. They came from a wide variety of professional backgrounds—some were attorneys, some were accountants, and fathers. You name it. But they all had a fire in their belly to share nature with other people, in ways that they were already doing. So it wasn’t that I was telling them how to do it. They were already in the practice and just wanted to do it with other people.

We now have fifteen leaders around the country. And they’re getting thousands of people out, right in their own backyards. What I think this group represents is not only diversity of people, but of regions, because we’ve got people from Atlanta, to the Pacific Northwest, and Los Angeles. And there are different natural assets in each of those places, and a different vernacular. So having leadership that represents and can speak authentically to what’s happening in the backyard of those particular urban hubs has been of tremendous benefit.

I think oftentimes when we’re talking about black and brown people, we tend to just kind of lump us all together, and not really recognize that the African American experience in Chicago is very different than it is in southern Mississippi. So having people from those regions who are able to lead in a very authentic way has opened the door wider for more people to participate.

We do collaborate with the parks and with other regional and national organizations. We tap into those resources to visit, to join us, and enhance the interpretive experience. And really it’s true partnerships. So we’re not seeing these agencies and organizations as the experts. We actually recognize that it’s so important that people, when they’re getting outdoors, and they look like Carolyn and I, that they don’t just see participants that are in that space, but they also see leadership in that space.

Often people will come to me and say, “We would love to lead your group on a trip” as if we don’t have the expertise, which is untrue. We’ve got the expertise and the knowledge to lead. And we enhance that knowledge by bringing the national parks and other partner organizations together to have a conversation and annual training about what it looks like to lead. We’re able to empower people who don’t necessarily identify themselves as traditional environmental educators and are not a part of a professional organization. They are leaders, knowledgeable experts in their own communities. So that’s what we celebrate and inspire. We consider the National Park Service and other agencies true partners, but not necessarily our leaders.

Christensen: I’m just curious. You talk about different vernaculars. Is there a difference in your work between Northern and Southern California?

Mapp: San Francisco is where we got started, and there are different natural assets here. Our redwoods and the experiences that people have in places like Muir Woods are different experiences than the weekend beach party that might be happening in Southern California. I also find that the motivations for people to get out into nature are different between Northern and Southern California. For instance, in the south, people are much more interested in the intersection between nature and health and healthy living. So the messaging is just a little bit different. I’m not saying that people in the north don’t care about their physical wellbeing. But I think that there’s a lot more interest in that conversation in Southern California than here. And there are some differences that are just subtle, but the person who represents LA for Outdoor Afro, she was born and raised in Los Angeles. She knows the community. She knows the organizations. She knows how to message and interact in a way that inspires people to get outside.

Christensen: The environmental justice movement is now around thirty years old. So we have been talking about some of these things in a really concerted way for a long time. The conversation seems to evolving in some really interesting ways. But, on the other hand, we’ve been talking about this, really, for thirty years or more. Has anything really changed?

Finney: The environmental movement and the environmental conversation are not divorced from what goes on in this country. We are still having the same conversations about race that we’ve been having for as long as I’ve been alive. So when I look at the environmental movement, I don’t expect to see something totally different. I do see some shift when I think about institutions and organizations—government institutions, academic institutions, nonprofits, and other organizations—that have been controlling and shaping that conversation, because we, people of color, are showing up in those spaces. We weren’t in many of those spaces a few years ago.

Mapp: I just think there’s a demographic shift that is going to force change. What the environmental movement has to get is that this is also a market-driven conversation. This is not just about how it feels. This is about the fact that environmental nonprofits are not going to have the members they have right now, forty years from now. Outdoor retailers are not going to have the consumers that they have today, forty years from now. How are they cultivating not only the members, but the leadership that might reflect that new and different demographic? You can certainly brownwash your environmental messaging, but if your executives, leadership, the C-suite, and board don’t reflect the populations that you say that you prioritize in your organization, then I think it’s inauthentic at a minimum. We know the demographic shift that’s happening in this country means we’ll be an even more brown country. If environmental organizations do not respond to that change, they have a risk of becoming obsolete. And I think that there is some change in the conversations happening that is driven by that sense of panic. Unfortunately, I don’t think that that’s the right motivation.

Finney: I don’t either.

Photograph by James Edward Mills http://www.joytripproject.com

Mapp: This work is really about love for the people, love for the environment, love for place. It should not be because we want to save our own jobs and organizations to stay in the game, or be credited for solutions. You don’t have to have a brand, organization, or personality visible in the middle of change for it to happen. There are many things already underway. People are already creating their own destinies and pathways to engage with nature. Making those visible and supporting those existing pathways, I think, is really what’s needed here versus yet another initiative by an agency or a big nonprofit organization.

For me it’s still unclear how some of the larger organizations are going to adapt to the current needs of the movement in the timeframe in which it needs to happen. I mean, if we’re just going for transactions, such as getting a certain number of people into our parks, maybe you can achieve that. But what we’re really looking for is a culture shift that makes visible and valid ways that people are connecting with parks that are not about the parks for their own sake but for everyone’s sustainability. I think a lot about smoking and how people used to smoke cigarettes everywhere—in banks, in bars, on buses. And to get to the place where people were not doing that took about twenty years.

So what we’re talking about, I think, ultimately, is not something that’s going to happen within a year, but something that is a part of a whole culture shift, and on a longer time continuum, similar to what civil rights represented. I think forty years from now we’ll probably put the end date on the civil rights movement much further out than we imagine it now. We’re still in the middle of it. And I think this environmental question is still in its infancy.


From Los Vallecitos to Lost Valley

by Jared Dahl Aldern

From Boom Fall 2014, Vol 4, No 3

Here’s where the big bear died.

An afternoon’s trip has brought me from my San Ysidro Mountain home to Los Vallecitos, an undulating set of hills near San Mateo Creek. An odd kind of beauty dwells in this place. Here in the northwest corner of San Diego County, Los Vallecitos is surrounded by the Southern California megalopolis that stretches from Tijuana to Los Angeles, yet isolated by sizable tracts of national forest and Marine Corps gunnery ranges. It’s almost sunset now, and I-5—about ten miles to the west—is crowded with Saturday evening traffic. I can just make out the slow, eerie flow of taillights against a curving counterflow of headlights, punctuated by the strobing red warning lights that sweep up the grassy slopes toward me atop a line of high-voltage transmission towers. There is no sound except for the staccato calls of a few evening songbirds. The peaks and plateaus to the north create a scene that could easily grace a glossy Sierra Club calendar.

The mixture of human manipulation and wildness lends the place a strange aura—things are a little spooky, even. Still, the scene is nagged by memory of a grander, stranger presence it no longer possesses. The land misses its grizzly bears.

It was at Los Vallecitos, in the fading twilight of 5 August 1899, where a rancher named Henry A. Stewart delivered the final five .38-.55 caliber slugs into what turned out to be San Diego County’s last recorded grizzly bear, and the largest bear ever documented in California. A historian later dubbed the animal the “Monster of San Mateo.” Henry Stewart and his neighbors knew it simply as “the big bear.”

It was big, all right, standing upright nine-and-a-half feet and weighing over fourteen hundred pounds. The Chief of the United States Biological Survey, C. Hart Merriam, examined the bear’s remains and determined the Southern California grizzly to be a distinct subspecies, which he named Ursus magister. The professor’s notes on the animal suggest he was impressed, even awed, by the specimen. “Size of male huge,” Merriam wrote, “largest of known grizzlies, considerably larger than californicus of the Monterey region, and even than horribilis, the great buffalo-killing grizzly of the Plains.”

Photograph of the first Bear Flag from Pictorial History of California by Owen Cochran Coy.

The big bear was one of the last of its kind; a female reputed to be its mate was the last grizzly taken in the general area, in 1908 in Orange County’s Trabuco Canyon. The species had been pursued relentlessly since Europeans first settled here. During the early part of the nineteenth century, Spanish and Mexican hunters competed with each other and challenged themselves by capturing bears alive with lariats. They then offered a spectacular show at a Pala or Santa Ysabel fiesta by chaining a bear to a bull in a corral. Many times the bear would kill several bulls in succession before, injured and fatigued, it would lose its final fight. Later settlers continued the live captures and bear-baitings of various sorts, but on the whole Americans preferred less elaborate hunts and simple, shotgun-loaded traps.

The black bear—the bear of the forest—still makes its home in the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada. The grizzly, on the other hand, was the bear of the valleys, foothill chaparral, and woodlands. The distinct habits and ample habitats of the two bears usually kept them from direct competition north of the Tehachapis. In the open shrublands, oak woodlands, and grasslands of Southern California, however, there was room only for the grizzly bear; no record of black bears exists for the Transverse Ranges until the grizzly disappeared. Farther south, here in the Peninsular Ranges, black bears still have not gained a solid foothold, more than a century after the grizzly’s demise. The only bears you are likely to see in the Santa Anas, San Ysidros, or Cuyamacas today shimmy outside schools and state offices on the California flag.

The nineteenth-century invasion of Southern California by the rest of America made Ursus magister’s extirpation inevitable. The idea that people and grizzlies could coexist never seems to have come up among the new settlers. Even the period’s nature lovers were generally terrified of the grizzly and content to see it go.

Take John Charles Van Dyke, for instance. A Rutgers University art historian, he brought an esthete’s sensibility to his desert wanderings in the 1880s. His writings evoked the Colorado Desert’s grandeur and made him a model for a host of later desert scribes. But bring him up into the chaparral—grizzly country—and Van Dyke’s narrative voice begins to tremble. Of Southern California’s brush lands, grown thick a century after a Spanish governor first banned burning by indigenous people, Van Dyke wrote:

“It is not an attractive place because the only successful method of locomotion through it is on hands and knees. That method of motion is peculiar to the bear, and so for that matter is the chaparral through which you are tearing your way. It is one of the hiding places of the grizzly. . . . To avoid the chaparral (and also the bear) you would better keep on the sunny side of the spurs where the ground is more open.”

A few years after Van Dyke’s words of caution, Mary Hunter Austin wrote of California in essays and stories that conveyed both love for wild things and a clear-eyed naturalism. Yet she, too, got the willies at the thought of a grizzly and expressed relief at the bear’s decline. “He is not only the largest and strongest of bears, but the most ferocious,” she wrote, “so it is fortunate that nowadays he is not seen very often.”

Van Dyke and Austin had good basis for their fears. An enraged grizzly could race through the chaparral at the speed of a galloping horse; a member of Henry Stewart’s hunting party described the big bear charging and parting the manzanita and scrub oak “like grass.”

Almost unbelievably strong, magister also had plenty of smarts. Around the world, bears keep careful track of changes in their surroundings in order to find the newest plant growth and richest food. The emergence and acumen of bears in spring provides a powerful metaphor for resurrection, a justification for hope and faith. Here in the Peninsular Ranges, grizzlies learned precisely where to look for the sweetest clover and acorns and the fattest steelhead trout, and they could easily fool other creatures. Early rancheros told of bears that lured livestock by lying in a grassy clearing and waving all four paws in the air. When a crowd of curious cattle approached closely enough, the bear would leap up and dispatch a cow or bull for a short-order lunch, sometimes breaking the bovine’s neck with one well-placed blow.

Drawing from The Historie of Four-Footed Beastes: Describing the True and Lively Figure of Every of Every Beast by Edward Topsell.

Stories, mostly true, of bears maiming and killing humans also abounded, so the general uneasiness with which magister was regarded is easy to grasp. One man stated that he knew personally of six men killed by grizzlies in the Temecula Mountain region in one ten-year period. An earlier pioneer reported on grizzlies in 1861 to Harper’s New Monthly Magazine:

“I knew several gentlemen in California who had been horribly mutilated by these ferocious animals. One had the side of his face torn off; another had one of his arms ‘chawed up’ as he expressed it; a third had suffered paralysis from a bite in the spine; a fourth had received eighteen wounds in a fight with one bear; and I knew of various cases in which men had been otherwise crippled for life or killed on the spot.”

What really got the bears in trouble, though, was what they held in common with people. They were fond of many of the same places we enjoy. Grizzlies scavenged beaches frequently and went for an occasional swim in the surf. They lounged in inland water holes and hot springs. When white settlers arrived, bears developed a taste for beef, pork, and honey (the big bear of Los Vallecitos had pilfered a number of beehives on farms near Fallbrook), thus incurring the wrath of those farmers and ranchers who had intended their products for other customers. In the end, the grizzlies’ downfall was that their ecological niche overlapped with ours too much. One smart, strong, fun-loving omnivore had to go, and it wasn’t going to be human.

The idea that Southern California bears had a lot in common with people is an old one. The original people of the region identified the bear as the animal most closely related to humans. The relationship was symbiotic: the wisest people paid attention to where bears were gathering in greatest numbers, and bears were most likely to gather in places where people’s burning of the land had cultivated the most nutritious acorns and attracted the largest crowds of prey for bears. There were confrontations, to be sure, and Indians and bears sometimes had to fight to the death, but bears were often addressed as “Great-grandfather,” with all the respect and kinship that term carries.

Because bears were the animals most closely related to humans, the most powerful men—those who could transform themselves into other creatures—often became bears. The historical accounts describing men who could change into bears are delivered in a straightforward, honest style. The authors don’t say, “He seemed to change into a bear,” or “Everyone believed the man could transform himself into a grizzly bear.” They tend to leave it at, “He became a bear.” I take the narrators at their word and their stories at face value. The stories are not metaphors but articulations of deep, longstanding, complex relationships with another species.

Bear-people (some women made the transformation, too) had many reasons for changing into bears. They might have wanted to gain an advantage in a hunt, travel more rapidly from place to place, or punish a criminal as only a bear could. Some bear-men transformed in order to entertain their family and friends. One nineteenth-century Cupeño man changed into a bear in order to frighten people at ceremonies. He also killed calves at local ranches while in the form of a bear.

Bear-men survived into the twentieth century, longer than the bears themselves. In the oral history Yumáyk Yumáyk Long Ago, published in 1995, the Luiseño elder Virginia Calac Hyde tells of a time when she was cured of a serious illness by a doctor, now deceased, who became a bear and removed several small stones from her body.

The anthropologist Edward W. Gifford described a Mountain Cahuilla man from San Ignacio near Warner Springs named Juan de la Cruz Norte who transformed himself into a bear a few times around 1920.

“Juan is clubfooted and of heavy build. It would not take a very vivid imagination to see the likeness of a bear in him. Indian school girls have often joked about his clubfeet and bear-like appearance. A couple of years ago Juan appeared as a bear to two girls at Pala, who were among the number who formerly amused themselves at his expense. On this occasion there was a fiesta in progress, to which most of the Pala people had gone. The two young women remained at home. Juan came by on horseback and saw the two girls sitting in a house with the door open. He had been drinking and was probably in a bad humor. At any rate he decided to have revenge for the previous injuries to his feelings. He rode up to the house, dismounted and stood in the doorway. He reminded the girls that they had twitted him about his feet and his bear-like appearance and that now he was really going to become a bear. The girls were very much frightened. He started to sing, raising and lowering his arms at the same time. His arms were flexed as he raised and lowered them from the shoulders. The terrified girls saw the hair appear on his body and the claws grow on his hands. His horse, which he held by the reins, snorted in terror, jerked on the reins, and finally pulled Juan out of the doorway, thus breaking the spell.

“On another occasion, it is related, Juan and his brother quarreled while drunk. The brother said that he did not believe Juan could become a bear as he claimed. Juan accepted the challenge and the brother barely escaped from the house.”

Gifford noted that several times white people asked Norte to change into a bear, but he always asked too high a price for the job, which was risky and could prove fatal.

Not only was the transformation itself dangerous, but bear-men also faced all the hazards routinely presented to grizzlies. Fortunately, the power of alteration was sometimes accompanied by that of resurrection. Gifford tells of a Temecula man who, while in the form of a bear, was caught by cowboys, roped, and flayed. When the cowboys left, the man was able to rise from the carcass and return home. Such things were possible among people who, while respecting and fearing grizzlies, knew the animals as close relatives and associated them with powerful change, renewal, and resurrection.

“Thieving California Grizzlies in a Wheat Field” from This Was California by Albert Sheldon Pennoyer.

There are those who suggest seriously that grizzlies should be resurrected—reintroduced, that is—today in Southern California. Dave Foreman, Howie Wolke, and Rick Bass are among the writers who have proposed reestablishing viable grizzly populations in the region. Foreman and Wolke single out Santa Barbara’s chaparral-covered Los Padres National Forest as particularly fine grizzly habitat. The California Chaparral Institute has proposed a Grizzly National Monument—absent actual grizzlies—centered on Trabuco Canyon and Los Vallecitos. One problem with these proposals is that today’s thick, old-growth chaparral memorializes the grizzly’s last stronghold, not its prime habitat. The grizzly may have had a preference for denning in dense chaparral, but when it thrived over the last ten thousand years in what is now called Southern California, it thrived largely by foraging in grasslands, open shrublands, and oak woodlands that were maintained by frequent fires set by indigenous people. Later, bears took refuge in the chaparral, and when they finally disappeared, it was in a changed landscape: new arrivals altered the vegetation by excluding fire and the intimate connections it enabled, and they saw the bears only as fearsome, oversized varmints.

In 1986, Steve Sorenson wrote an article for the San Diego Reader entitled “Bring Back the Grizzly: A Modest Proposal.” Like Jonathan Swift, whose satiric “Modest Proposal” for Irish social reform hinged on selling poor children for meat, Sorenson mixed irony with accurate pictures of his society’s general lack of humility.

“We are the broken link in the food chain, and even though life goes on without us, we feel this strange, unnatural distance between ourselves and other living things, as though the animals stopped talking to us when we put ourselves above them. The grizzly bear was the one animal that kept us in our place, and it can put us there again.

“. . . We may feel safer for having eliminated the grizzly from this land, but we are greater fools for it. We go about our lives seeking wealth, security, and good health, as though these things could save us from our fate. . . We need the grizzly bear. We miss him. We long for the sight of him lumbering down our streets, powered by the flesh of humanity, foraging through the sun roofs of cars caught in the rush-hour traffic, loitering with the transients in Balboa Park, sunning himself in the middle of I-5 if he wants to. . . ”

It may be that any species restoration proposal runs the risk of focusing on the wrong species in the equation if it doesn’t focus on people. Perhaps a particular sort of human relationship with grizzly bears must be restored before the bears themselves can come back. It is true that, although C. Hart Merriam divided bears into more than ninety species in the early 1900s, today zoologists tend to classify all brown bears together as one inclusive species—Ursus arctos—discounting Merriam’s finer divisions such as Ursus magister as regionalized subspecies of arctos or perhaps even as incorrect interpretations of individual genetic variation. I wonder, though. Maybe Merriam was right to distinguish a species of grizzly uniquely adapted to Southern California and the indigenous people of the region. Understated, even nondescript at first glance, the region’s scrub, woodlands, and meadows reveal their riches grudgingly, sometimes only when prodded with fire, a difficult tool to deploy in an incessantly urbanized region.

Many years ago I corresponded briefly with a Montanan who was coordinating a bear-conservation group called the Grizzly Bear Task Force. I asked him what he thought of the idea of bringing grizzlies back to San Diego County. He gently replied that he was afraid that the Cleveland National Forest might be too small and too close to Los Angeles and San Diego for the comfort of either bears or people, and that reintroduction of grizzlies would most likely be politically unworkable. It may also be ecologically unworkable. Magister bears could only have found the protein needed to grow as large and powerful as they did by matching their schemes and strategies to their surroundings as no arctos from Montana or the Yukon could, at least without first establishing and sustaining a relationship with people who could best tend the land.

So there may be a fundamental error in any plan to move grizzly bears to Southern California from any other place. Instead we could look for signs that magister still lives here, and encourage it to thrive. Indigenous bear dancers still perform their ceremonies at tribal events throughout the region, and bears and people may yet be able to meet in liminal (and real) places. Where the land and people are prepared—biophysically, intellectually, and spiritually—the bears will appear.

For example, a friend who grew up on Los Coyotes Indian Reservation tells me of a man she knew not long ago. “This man would always wear five or six coats and three or four pairs of pants,” she says.

“He never took those clothes off. Even in the summer heat he’d wear all those clothes, and he’d sweat like crazy. People said he was an animal and those coats were his skins. Sometimes my friends and I would walk down the road to the store at Warner Springs. When we left the mountain, this man would be up there, but when we got to the store, he’d be there waiting for us. People said that was because he had changed into an animal and took an animal trail down the mountain a lot faster than we could walk down the road. That was weird.”

Pomo bear doctor’s suit from Pomo Bear Doctors by Samuel A. Barrett.

Like seedlings pushing through a split in a smooth city sidewalk, pieces of the old influence still surface.

In another story, a Cupeño tale tells of events in Lost Valley, a remote basin near the point where the San Ysidros plunge down their steep escarpment to the desert. Once a grizzly was killed and skinned here by a great hero named Kisil-piwic. Manuela Griffith told part of the story this way in 1925:

“Kisil-piwic set out long rows of stone traps to catch wood rats which he brought to his mother. After several days he always found his traps empty and he asked his mother what was robbing them. She said it was probably isil (coyote) but when he drew a picture of the tracks he found at the traps she told him it was a bear (hunwut). She told kisil-piwic to beware for the bear was very dangerous. Instead he hid and waited for the bear, and after a long hard fight killed it with his club. So he told his mother he had killed something with long curved claws, and she said that it must be a bear. ‘Yes,’ he answered, ‘and I am going out to bring it in.’ He carried the huge animal in on his back and skinned it. . . Then he sewed up the skin and blew into it till it was full, and the bear came to life. . . Kisil-piwic played with the bear as though it were a puppy.”

After resurrecting the bear with his own breath, Kisil-piwic fought a large group of his enemies with his bear at his side. “The bear killed very many and they all fled,” and Kisil-piwic regained his home village of Kupa.

The skin of an Ursus magister, that of the Los Vallecitos bear’s reputed Orange County mate, was sent to the Smithsonian Institution in 1908. In 1975, historian Jim Sleeper wrote to the Smithsonian to inquire about the skin. When a curator replied, “Mr. John Mills of our Division of Mammals could not find it in our collection,” Sleeper concluded that the little that had remained of Southern California’s grizzly had at last disappeared. “Sadly we are left with nothing,” he wrote, “but a few old newspaper clippings, a handful of myths and a few fading memories.”

A few years ago I called the Smithsonian to see if perhaps they had run across that grizzly skin. I talked to a curator named Bob Hoffman, who checked the records and called me back the next day. It turns out that, true to the grizzly’s historic ties to change and resurrection, the skin resurfaced when the mammal collection was relocated to a new facility. “That skin is in our inventory now,” Hoffman told me. “It must have been found during the move.” He added that the specimen is available for study by anyone with a “legitimate professional interest.”

I thought of the lonely hillside at Los Vallecitos where Henry Stewart killed his bear, and then I thought of the story of Kisil-piwic. I thought of how, sometimes, when I hike the San Ysidros, I can look down into Lost Valley, way down through the pines and under the oaks into a park-like expanse of grass, and imagine a young man dancing and playing with a grizzly. I wondered if, someday soon, someone might be able to bring the Ursus magister skin home from the Smithsonian, and if anyone might know how to sew it up tight and breathe the life back into that bear.

Poster by Calthea Campbell Vivian.



All images courtesy of the Bancroft Library.


Lighting Cultural Fires

by Mary Ellen Hannibal

From Boom Fall 2014, Vol 4, No 3

On a spring day earlier this year, I stepped in quick single file with a group of students behind Don Hankins, professor of geography and planning at Chico State University, through a waist-high tangle of fresh greenery in the Castello Forest near the Cosumnes River. Our goal was to collect 100 mousetraps that had been set on land Hankins had burned with Plains Miwok fire practitioners, local Cosumnes firefighters and others the previous fall. Moving quickly from trap to trap, we didn’t find many mice, but Hankins handled those we did mostly by pinching fur at the back of their necks, determining their sex, weighing, measuring, and inspecting them for parasites. To make a species-level identification, some of the mice required a closer look. “I have to check the teeth on this one,” he muttered. “By having it bite somebody?” a student suggested. Hankins pulled back tiny gums and measured tiny choppers. Satisfied that this mouse at least was now adequately known to science, he returned it to civilian scurrying.

While Hankins hasn’t yet formally analyzed the impacts of this set of burns in a projected series over the next few years, he informally observed a flush of native species, including grape, tobacco, and coyote brush, none of which are currently well-represented elsewhere in the forest. The return of these historically cultivated plants has been stimulated through burning by Native Americans in an area overcome by invasive species in the absence of regular fire.

Hankins lit the Costello Forest fire in the context of a National Science Foundation grant to investigate the effects of returning Native American burning practices to California landscapes where fire has been suppressed since the late 1800s. The US Forest Service and various local, regional, and state fire agencies today are mostly in agreement that a century of official fire suppression has put the landscape in a perilous situation. Without low-burning prescribed fires that clear out duff and debris and keep the fuel load minimized, the stuff accumulating on forest floors becomes tinder, ready to send any small, perhaps accidentally started fire into a major conflagration. Droughts like the one we have been enduring recently make things worse: everything’s drier. Climate change projections predict that California will get hotter still and periods of extreme dryness will increase.

Hankins believes that setting small, prescribed fires is good for restoring the land, but he’s also after something more: bringing back cultural burning. Before European contact, California supported a dispersed and diverse panoply of polities, many of which used fire as a tool for co-creating ecosystems. California beguiled so many newcomers but was completely misinterpreted by most of them; what the Russians, the Spanish, the Mexicans, and eventually Americans found here was not an untouched Eden but a practically human-made landscape, a series of habitat patches that were deliberately ecologically managed. From this cultivated landscape issued not just a year-round supply of food, but the basis upon which Native Americans constructed their material culture. For example, they burned to promote uniform, straight, and flexible deer grass, willow, and other plant stalks with which they made their basketry (and still do).

What the Russians, the Spanish, the Mexicans, and Americans found here was not an untouched Eden but a practically human-made landscape.

The research that Hankins and his colleagues are undertaking is providing a window into how historic burning practices affected tribal livelihoods in the past. It also suggests how returning fire to the land could affect California Indian communities and cultures in the present and into the future. The long and consistent interaction between indigenous people and their environments, moderated by fire, Hankins believes, is at the heart of a cultural covenant with nature, the nexus of a worldview with historic precedence going back thousands of years. Given the complexities of the Anthropocene—our present age, in which human beings influence and often dominate every ecosystem on Earth—we desperately need to understand different ways that culture and nature can work together in our world.

As our day collecting mousetraps progressed, Hankins pointed out groups of plants that tend to live together, and he told us how these assemblages shift as slope and aspect do, and how what grows where also has to do with geology and soil. Where he hadn’t burned, invasive plants were ubiquitous—mustard, radish, star thistle—outcompeting native plants and often degrading the health of the ecosystem. Journals kept by explorer John Charles Frémont in the mid-1800s indicate this area was a riparian thicket. Hankins thus inferred that by the time Frémont got here it was no longer burned regularly by Native Americans—their populations had already been decimated by disease and other mission-period impacts.

Hankins has Plains Miwok ancestry on his mother’s side of the family, from the Central Valley, and Osage from Missouri on his father’s. Hankins grew up in the Bay Area, but his parents lived at something of a cultural remove from their indigenous inheritance. What he learned young about Native American traditions came mostly through his grandfather, who taught him by way of the outdoors. Hankins eventually got a Ph.D. in geography, but as an undergraduate he also dug deep into Native American studies at the University of California, Davis. Using a dictionary written by Catherine Callaghan, he began to learn Miwko?—the language of the Plains Miwok (the question mark represents a glottal stop)—and sought out people who still spoke it. Through Callaghan he learned about an elder living in a local convalescent home. “It’s taken me twenty years to find others,” he told me. “There aren’t very many.” Hankins is now the only speaker of Miwko?, although he is teaching his kids. The language provides useful insight into the physical world of this region.

Today, Hankins is an associate professor and also field director of the California State University Ecological Reserves. His formal academic training is firmly rooted in European traditions. But his knowledge about fire on the landscape comes at least as much, if not more, from stories told by tribal members conveying what he calls “traditional law.”

“In all my land management classes,” he told me, “I teach pyro, water, and restoration. I begin talking about traditional law as story. Traditional law tells us about the world and how we are supposed to behave in it. So I think about that wherever I go. In 2002, when I lit my first fire, I was validating what elders told me.”

In the words of Frank Lake, a Forest Service ecologist with the Yurok tribe who is working with Hankins on this research: “Agencies can say, ‘we’re stewards,’ and talk about using fire in those terms, but tribal people have a much deeper philosophical connection with fire. The premise of our creation accounts is that people came to this world, and learned the first teaching, the first law, which is that people have a reciprocal obligation to conduct themselves in a particular way with fire, water, and other resources. And a way to relate to everything out there: rocks, trees, insects, plants, and animals. Our first responsibility is stewardship of the environment, and only after that to our people and our culture.”

The story of fire on the land in California has been something of a slow reveal. Alfred Kroeber, director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Museum of Anthropology from 1909 to 1947, and author of the still-influential 1925 Handbook of the Indians of California, noticed that Californians were among the most “omnivorous group of tribes on the continent.” Unlike other native people in North America, Californians didn’t specialize in a few crops or foods. “Further, the food resources of California were bountiful in their variety rather in their overwhelming abundance along special lines. If one supply failed, there were a hundred others to fall back on.” Kroeber was quiet on the role played by fire in California’s unique landscape or the active part in this myriad abundance played by the Indians themselves.

Native Americans didn’t just exploit California’s cornucopia—they enhanced its productivity.

As those of us who live here are periodically reminded, ours is a volatile geography. The constant yet irregular impacts of our famous tectonic plates striking and slipping have created a diverse topography. Most significant is the double-header of mountain ranges lining our coast and the interior of the state. All those hills, all those dales, the precipitous rocks, and the big flood plains filled with rich soil, create the literal groundwork upon which further diversity here flourishes. The Pacific Ocean does its part, driving our climate with the clockwise circulation pattern of the California Current. This dynamic cycle brought marine abundance to people here and still does, but also helps create the weather that interacts with geology to create our terrestrial habitats. California is a mosaic in every way, and its multiple and diverse ecosystems supported diverse communities of Native Americans. It was a land of relative plenty to begin with, but what Kroeber and many others didn’t quite see is that the Native Americans didn’t just exploit the cornucopia—they sustained and enhanced its productivity.

The first systematic anthropological treatment of Native American burning practices in California was made by a student of Kroeber’s, Omer Stewart, in the 1930s and 1940s. Stewart’s research was not taken up by his colleagues until 1973, when Henry Lewis published Patterns of Indian Burning in California: Ecology and Ethnohistory. In Lewis’s opinion, Stewart’s work was discounted and ignored when he wrote it because at the time, no one could conceive of fire as anything but destructive. M. Kat Anderson helped bring Stewart’s work to light and made her own enormous contribution to the understanding of Native Californians past and present, in her book Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources in 2005.

A short history of fire in California goes something like this: Approaching the coast of California in 1769, Padre Juan Crespí noticed upward of twelve fires on shore as his expedition made its way from Santa Cruz to San Francisco. The first prohibition of indigenous fires came by the pen of Governor Pedro Fages of the Royal Presidio of Monterey soon after. As Mexican and European incursions onto the land continued, disruption of Native American culture turned into full-on genocide, and in many places what has been called “ecocide” as well. The vast transformations wrought on the landscape by the Gold Rush, the railroads, ranching, and logging helped keep the true nature of fire on the land obscure.

Logging was particularly ruinous. It metastasized into wholesale destruction of what once seemed endless miles of forest, and not just through the removal of trees. Logging left flammable slash behind, and the railroads, throwing off sparks and cinders, contributed to large destructive fires the public eagerly sought to eliminate. By the late 1800s, the government started to get alarmed. Federal forest reserves were established in California in 1891. In 1905 the US Forest Service was created and Gifford Pinchot was named its first chief. In 1910 he declared, “Today we understand that forest fires are wholly within the control of men.”

Voices in opposition to fire suppression made an ecological case, even back then. “Practical foresters can demonstrate that from time immemorial fire has been the salvation of our California sugar and white pine forests,” argued G.L. Hoxie in Sunset Magazine in 1910. “The practical invites the aid of fire as a servant, not as a master. It will surely be master in a very short time unless the federal government changes its ways.” But the argument against fire was suffused with a fevered focus on protecting a means to a golden end: an empire needed to be built. San Francisco’s city engineer, Marsden Manson, declared in 1906 that the “light burning” system of Indian forestry was based on an erroneous understanding of “what forestry really is.” The “Indian system of forestry will not give timber as a crop!” he thundered. By the 1920s, fire exclusion was completely institutionalized.

But a lot has changed. This spring California Governor Jerry Brown declared: “Humanity is on a collision course with nature.” He deliberately connected the state’s severe drought with climate change. “As we send billions and billions of heat-trapping gases” into the air, he said, “we get heat and we get fires and we get what we’re seeing.” Firefighters already had responded to twice as many fires as during the same season the previous year. Brown counseled the usual: reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt, whatever that might mean. One thing is for sure: climate change has intensified the need to figure out how to deal with fire in California.

For more than thirty years, Ron Goode has been chairman of the North Fork Mono Tribe and a longtime starter of fires. Like Don Hankins, Goode is also perpetually bridging worlds, particularly those of the tribe and the Forest Service. Fire exclusion is no longer national policy in the Forest Service, and in the mid-1970s the term fire “control” was changed to “management.” Subsequent revisions of policy have affirmed fire is “an integral part of wildland ecosystems.” But that doesn’t mean agencies and officials have been able to wholeheartedly embrace fire or get it back on the landscape at adequate levels. “In North Fork we have a good relationship with the Forest Service,” Goode told me. “The administrators, for the most part, have always been very open to the tribe.” North Fork Mono people have worked as firefighters, some as part of the Forest Service’s top-rated hotshot crew. Goode himself has worked for the agency as an archaeologist. But while praising the district rangers and the people he works with regularly, Goode says some basic ideas have yet to percolate through the Forest Service as a whole. “None of us knows how to manage the land,” Goode told me, “not even me.”

Goode told me about attending a forest restoration conference a few years ago. “I sat there with twenty of these guys and there were some elders in the back of the room. And all these guys in suits and ties were talking about how the forest was supposed to be managed. Up on the wall someone had posted an adage: ‘If no one is in the forest, and no one is using the forest, what value does the forest have?’ I read that for about an hour and forty-five minutes and when I got up to speak I said, ‘I’m going to talk for fifteen minutes and you’d better listen.’ I pointed to the sign and I said, ‘This is where our problem starts.'”

Someone got up to tear the paper off the wall but Goode stopped him. “Even if there are no people in the forest, which is never true, there are animals, plants, and water in the forest, and all these things have spirit. And when you get to the point where you don’t see that spirit, you don’t understand that spirit. That’s what makes the difference between native living on the land and the commodity living,” he said. The restoration meeting was “all about what needs to be done and what needs to be fixed,” he said. “You are never going to get to the sacredness or spirit of water, for example, or the necessity of water to life, talking this way. You know when a doctor says they’ll keep someone alive when there’s a chance for ‘quality of life’?” Goode asked me. “Well you don’t have a chance at any ‘quality of life’ if you are valuing it only by money and not by philosophy or culture.”

Don Hankins, Frank Lake, and Ron Goode are all part of a broad, interdisciplinary team assembled by Stanford University anthropologists Doug Bird and Rebecca Bliege Bird to examine common histories and contemporary experiences with fire among California Indians and Aboriginal Australians, such as the Martu people with whom the Birds have lived and worked over the past twenty years.

“You don’t have a chance at any ‘quality of life’ if you are valuing it only by money and not by philosophy or culture.”

Species are going extinct all over the globe at a rate and magnitude not seen since the extinction of the dinosaurs. Australia has experienced the same loss of top predators as North America. As big-toothed mammals such as dingos in Australia have been taken out of the picture, it has a “forcing effect” on the rest of the food web. Herbivores become over-entitled to greenery and decimate it. Hosts of smaller species that depend on healthy vegetation start to blink out. Invasive species get a green light to come on into the ecosystem and start accomplishing their own outcompeting of natives. But there are some interesting twists in the Australian situation. The areas of the country with the least amount of ranching and agriculture—the least human impact—are experiencing the highest rates of extinction. In the central and western Australian deserts, moreover, endemic mammal losses are highest, but the dingo population hasn’t changed. Where the Martu live and still regularly burn their country, species extinctions are fewer and population declines are slower than elsewhere.

The colonial onslaught in North America and Australia, it seems, wore the same blinders on both sides of the Pacific, conveniently erasing the presence and impact of indigenous people the better to steal their homelands. Terra Nullius—the notion that Australia belonged to no one and was there for the taking—reigned until the late twentieth century. In California, John Muir sought to remove the sight of Native Americans like a mote from his cosmic eyeball. As Kat Anderson puts it, Muir was “unable to fit them into his worldview.” Muir observed Miwok people in the Sierra Nevada in 1869, noting an old Indian woman dressed in calico rags. “Had she been clad in fur, or cloth woven of grass or shreddy bark. . . she might have seemed a rightful part of wilderness; like a good wolf at least, or bear.” With that attitude he helped to construct a philosophy of human-free wilderness—the enforcement of which was already degrading the ecosystems he loved to serenade. He wrote: “from no point of view that I have found are such debased fellow beings a whit more natural” than tacky tourists who scare the wildlife.

“Today we know people are part of nature, not separate from it,” Brian Codding, an anthropologist working with the Birds, told me. Furthermore, “land managers are realizing their time frame is a subset of the historic range of variation.” Restoring ecosystem functioning in California, especially as the hot breath of climate change bears down on us, involves looking backward and forward. It means putting fire back on the land not only to moderate diversity and to create resilience, but for cultural purposes as well. The obligations Don Hankins, Ron Goode, and Frank Lake honor have a corollary among the Martu. As Doug Bird has described it, the Martu heritage emerges from consumption of resources, the whole system of which is sacramental, imbued with transcendent meaning. Resources are the stuff of life, fire is the divine spark, and humans light it.

The View from Quiroste

“Many Native people would say this needs to be burned.” Rob Cuthrell, having just the weekend before become a newly minted doctor of archaeology, looked down from the edge of the 225-acre Quiroste Valley Cultural Preserve in Año Nuevo State Park north of Santa Cruz. We stood on the site of the ancient village Mitinne, once populated by the strong Quiroste polity who fatefully intersected here with the Spanish nearly 245 years ago. Down below was a familiar expanse of dried grasses interspersed with coyote brush and rimmed by Douglas fir trees. It looked a lot like many other wide-open expanses of California coast protected from development and home to many native species. Untouched land looks natural. But it’s not, really. Nor, perhaps, has it ever been, at least on the terms that we usually define the word “natural.”

Around the hilltop on which we stood, Cuthrell pointed out purple needlegrass, the official California state grass. “This is a main constituent of coastal prairies,” he said. “I was up here recently harvesting seeds with young tribal members.” Cuthrell told me about a native stewardship program instigated by the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, a local tribe descended from people at Mission Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista, who are involved in restoring this landscape to a condition close to what it was when the Quiroste lived here. Cuthrell is part of an extensive interdisciplinary collaboration between tribal members, academics (some of whom are also tribal members), and land management agency personnel investigating the deep history of the landscape, how the Quiroste lived on it, and how to best restore and maintain it going forward.

On the hillside, piles of hewn Douglas fir branches turned rust-colored and perfumed the air. “We’ve cut these down because Doug fir grows really fast, and soon these would shade out the native perennial grasses,” Cuthrell said. “These piles will decompose relatively quickly.” In contrast to the native grasses where we stood, the land down below was choked with invasive plants, some of which are native, but still considered invasive. The coyote brush is native, but the Quiroste would have kept it at bay, sustaining this place as wide-open grasslands by periodically burning it. “But there’s too much woody shrub to burn it now,” he said. “It would burn too hot. We have to prepare this land for burning, and it’s going to take time.” It will take more than thinning out the fuels. Invasive plants actually change the microbial structure of the soil and affect the entire suite of ecological interactions on a landscape. Putting fire on the land prematurely could perversely promote invasives rather than quell them.

This landscape was initially recognized for its historical significance by California State Parks archaeologist Mark Hylkema. Logged, ranched, and farmed for decades, the property was donated to the state parks system in the early 1980s. Hylkema had a bee in his bonnet from reading historic documents of Spanish encounters along the coast here. In 1769, Don Gaspar de Portola led an expedition in search of Monterey Bay. “By the time they got up here,” Hylkema told me, “they were in dire straits. Several crew members were dying. The land was all burned, so they couldn’t feed their horses and mules.” Thinking Año Nuevo Point was the northernmost part of Monterey Bay, they camped at what is now called Whitehouse Creek in late October. Troops marched along the beaches and descended down into what they called a “well-sheltered valley” of rolling hills and nut bearing pines. The Spanish came upon what they called Casa Grande, a large settlement dominated by a big structure. Quiroste tribal members met them, hosted them, and restored them. “This is where prehistory becomes history,” Hylkema told me. “Because the Quiroste could have told them to go back.”

With students from Cabrillo College, Hylkema radiocarbon dated remains of shells, plants, and animal bones on the site to determine whether Casa Grande could have originally stood here. Hylkema looked around for researchers to help him dig deeper into the history and implications of Quiroste—and thus turned to Chuck Striplen, an Amah Mutsun tribal member then looking for a site on which to focus his dissertation in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at UC Berkeley. Eventually, a team of more than fifteen researchers, including Striplen, Hylkema, Cuthrell, Kent Lightfoot, and Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribe, cohered around the work at Quiroste. The site was classified as a cultural preserve, and recently, the Amah Mutsun Land Trust added nearly 100 acres to the site in the form of a conservation easement.

“When the idea of our Tribe participating in this study first came to us,” Lopez has written, “we were dubious. . . why would we ever agree to participate in a project that could potentially disturb our ancestors?” Cuthrell proposed using magnetometry, ground penetrating radar, and electrical resistivity—none of which would disturb the ground—to help construct a three-dimensional model of what is underground. These techniques direct the researchers not only where to look further, but where to stop looking if it appears they are coming upon a grave site. The Amah Mutsun “wanted to support member Striplen’s academic goals,” Lopez said. They also “realized that science and archaeology play an important role in helping us restore our indigenous knowledge.”

In a recent special issue of California Archeology, Kent Lightfoot, an archaeologist, and Valentin Lopez, the tribal chairman, were measured in their conclusions: “We do not yet know when people first initiated sustained anthropogenic burning in California or how they may have developed and modified these practices over time. Nor do we know much about the kinds of impacts these landscape management practices had on the scores of biotic communities distributed across the. . . regions of California. Lastly, there has not yet been much research on the social organizational systems, numbers of people, and degree of community coordination involved in various kinds of eco-engineering activities.”

But out in the field, Chuck Striplen is willing to go a little further: “There’s no escaping history. These methods were how these ecosystems were maintained for more than 10,000 years. They didn’t always do it right, but on average, when the Spanish showed up it was to non-endangered condors, non-endangered red-legged frogs, and non-endangered salmon.”

Looking over Quiroste, the takeaway seems clear: It is not that we are here; it is how we are here.


In the preceding photographs, members of the North Fork Mono Tribe and volunteers conduct a cultural burn in the Sierra Nevada foothills in February 2013. COURTESY OF JARED DAHL ALDERN.