Tag: Environment


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.


Twenty-First-Century Sublime

by Amy Scott

From Boom Fall 2014, Vol 4, No 3

“The word ‘nature’ is a notorious semantic and metaphysical trap.” —Leo Marx¹

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of Amy Scott’s essay”Twenty-First-Century Sublime” from our Fall 2014 issue. 

On the Merced River, Albert Bierstadt. Courtesy of the California Historical Society.

Tension between the desire to experience nature in its unadulterated form and the urge to exploit it for material gain has long been at the center of landscape painting in the American West. This is especially true in California, where spectacular examples of both natural and built environments often exist in close temporal and geographic proximity. Here, you can begin your day on a remote stretch of the Pacific coast and within the hour be watching Chinese shipping containers unload in the Port of Los Angeles; you can take in the sunrise over suburban San Fernando Valley and the sunset in Yosemite National Park.

The connection between these places is as much about the conceptual as it is the geographical, however. Whereas nineteenth-century artists projected visions of the “Golden State” as a faraway place flush with natural resources, California’s landscape today is less exotic and more closely entwined with human industry. Yet far from rendering previous methods of depicting the landscape obsolete, contemporary artists are using historical practices and conventions to convey contemporary experience. The influence of the classic California landscape has not waned, but rather evolved.

Of the traditional methods for representing California’s natural environment, perhaps none has enjoyed more staying power than the sublime. This is due in part to the multivalent, flexible nature of the concept itself. The American sublime emerged in the late eighteenth century but underwent a significant transformation in response to the opening of western lands following the Civil War. What once represented a fear of the unknown became a more distinctly market-based interest in expansion. Shifting the mood of landscape art away from a solemn meditation on nature’s mystery to a more passive contemplation of its development potential, the New York–based painter Albert Bierstadt asked his audience not to fear the wilderness but to look hopefully toward a bicoastal future.²

Indeed, paintings such as On the Merced River rejected metaphysical interpretations of nature in favor of the rationalist logic of survey science (Bierstadt accompanied the Lander Survey to the Rocky Mountains in 1859) and thus encouraged a more tangible connection to the West as a place. This is reflected in Bierstadt’s work both in the easy visual access he provides to deep space as well as in his tightly painted foreground fauna, which caused critics to marvel.

As Bierstadt’s career suggests, the sublime is not a fixed concept but one that draws upon contemporary ideas of nature to respond to external changes—including developments in technology—that shape the ways in which we imagine both the natural and the built environment in relation to ourselves. An aesthetic formula designed to elicit an emotional response to an apparently natural vision, the sublime has been reconfigured in the postmodern era as a means of naturalizing the presence of technology within the contemporary landscape. Consider, for example, the aesthetic proximity between Bierstadt’s version of Yosemite and Michael Light’s large-scale photographs of San Pedro. The former is a preindustrial ideal, the latter a fully realized commercial setting dominated by the machinery of international shipping. Both evoke an ambitious sense of scale drawn from singular vantage points: Bierstadt’s oft-used magisterial view and Light’s aerial perspective; both use receding diagonals to create a sense of deep space and visual command; both are cleared of human presence, reinforcing the independent nature of the systems at work within them. Painted shortly after the close of the Civil War, Bierstadt’s On the Merced River anticipates California’s future as the gateway to Pan-Pacific commerce. Light’s San Pedro fully consummates that vision by the shipping containers stretching endlessly toward the horizon.

The technological continuum between Bierstadt’s Yosemite and Light’s San Pedro, between the Romantic era and today, is more than superficial. In Bierstadt’s painting, technology—though not visible—is implied throughout the composition. Survey science is there, in the carefully painted, highly detailed foreground topography. A sense of materialism and accumulation is there, too, in the vignette of natural wonders on display, especially the ample timber supplies represented by the forest. Although Bierstadt does not directly reference the coming industrial landscape, he nevertheless anticipates it. In its perfectly ordered scene of natural abundance, his On the Merced River speaks powerfully to nationalist expectations of postwar economic growth and progress.

Light’s San Pedro shares this sense of mastery over the natural world and a seemingly unshakeable faith in America as a geopolitical powerhouse. There is, however, a darker aspect to the fully realized technocratic state as depicted in Light’s work. In his San Pedro, one of several photographs of the Port of Los Angeles bound together in an oversize folio, a literal sea of commodities expands across the image, bleeding past its borders. Visually organized by its dense grid of intersecting lines, the photograph combines the realism of immense amounts of surface detail with the aerial, all-encompassing perspective of the map. Light requires not only a wide-angle lens but also a plane to produce these photographs (Light has had his pilot’s license since age sixteen)—images that elicit a sense of wonder in the face of a totalizing spectacle of technologic power, a “techno-euphoria,” as some scholars have called it.³

Rancho San Pedro 04.28.06: Evergreen Container Terminal Looking Southeast, Terminal Island; Exxon Mobil Facility At Left, Michael Light. Courtesy of the Autry National Center, Los Angeles.

Light’s visual embrace of heavy industry is intended to be both awesome and beautiful. Yet for all the dynamics of order and control that pervade his technocratic landscapes, they also resonate with an element of “terror at the power and progress of industrialization,”4 in which the scales threaten to tip from order to the chaos of industry run amok.5

Bridges, James Doolin. Courtesy of the Estate of James Doolin and Koplin Del Rio Gallery.


Mulholland Above Universal City, Los Angeles, California, Karen Halverson. Courtesy of the Autry National Center, Los Angeles.



1 Leo Marx, “The Idea of Nature in America,” Daedulus 137:2 (Spring 2008): 9.

2 The “transcendental sublime” was coined by Earl Powell in his essay “Luminism and the American Sublime,” in John Wilmerding, ed., American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850–1875 (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1980), 69–94. See also Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture: American Landscape Painting, 1825–1875 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1980, 1995, 2007).

3 See Rob Wilson, “Techno-Euphoria and the Discourse of the Sublime,” boundary 2 19:1 (Spring 1992): 208.

4 Ibid., 207.

5 For more on the idea of horror and the banal as related to Los Angeles, see Cécile Whiting, “The Sublime and the Banal in Postwar Photography of the American West,” American Art, 27:2 (Summer 2013): 51.


Futures Past

by Erin Beller, Ruth Askevold, and Robin Grossinger

From Boom Fall 2014, Vol 4, No 3

Exploring California landscapes with the San Francisco Estuary Institute

The Sacramento River, then and now.

Heading home from a successful duck hunting trip near the Sacramento River one rainy winter evening around 1850, William Wright got hopelessly lost in a muddy maze of ice-covered tules. Navigating in the pitch dark only by the direction of the wind and sleet, he trudged through a series of cold, waist-deep lakes, falling into beaver holes full of icy water. Disoriented, soaked, cold, and hungry—and lugging dozens of duck and goose carcasses—he and his companion gave up for the evening. They set up camp, making a dinner of raw goose meat and a bed of tules and goose wings—”the worst camp I ever made in my life,” Wright wrote.

At the San Francisco Estuary Institute’s Center for Resilient Landscapes, we use accounts like Wright’s to discover California as it was before the rapid and often profound transformations of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Our ecological detective work synthesizes clues found in naturalists’ field notebooks and surveyors’ sketches; diary entries by Spanish explorers, Forty-Niners, and farmers’ wives; and photographs of camping trips and family picnics, to name a few of the colorful and idiosyncratic sources left behind by previous generations of writers and artists, scientists and surveyors, residents, and travelers. These early observations allow us to reconstruct past ecological patterns and create detailed maps of long-gone landscapes across the state. They let us visualize change through time, providing a spatially explicit view of how prior generations of Californians shaped their landscapes into the ones we have inherited and continue to reshape today.

The resultant maps, examples of which are shown on the following pages, depict ecological mosaics across the state as they were in the late 1700s and early 1800s. They offer a glimpse of California as no one alive today has ever seen it: full of vast tule swamps, broad riparian forests and oak woodlands, immense tracts of tidal marsh laced with sinuous channels, and more-than-plentiful duck hunting. To date we and our partners have mapped over two million acres across the state.

The maps themselves are fascinating, an intricate patchwork of curves and colors. But this research is not an exercise in cartographic nostalgia. These maps are tools that help us design future landscapes that are better adapted to California’s variable and dynamic climate. They provide a landscape-scale understanding of the complexity and diversity of California ecosystems, allowing us to better understand how landscapes worked, to track persistence and change, and to envision future scenarios. By helping us understand how ecosystems were organized in the recent past, the physical processes that shaped them, and how they have evolved through time, these maps illuminate the potential—opportunities and constraints, the possible and the impossible—embedded in the contemporary landscape.

Taken together, these maps provide vignettes of the complex patterns exhibited by the historical landscape. Each landscape possessed its own inherent coherence, its own logic, reflecting physical conditions and processes. Blues mark the wettest and lowest areas: ocean, bays, lagoons, tidal channels, rivers, and ponds. Teal represents freshwater marsh, the such as the place where William Wright lost his way. Shades of dark green represent forest and chaparral, while lighter greens represent tidal marshes and seasonally flooded meadows. Oranges and yellows represent drier habitat types, including grassland, coastal sage scrub, and oak woodland. Brown and bright yellow are dune and beach. Channels are sinuous and habitat boundaries crenulated, embodying the maxim that nature abhors a straight line. These ecological patterns were shaped by fundamental physical characteristics (such as geology, soils, and topography) and processes (such as flooding and sediment deposition), in addition to shifting variables such as climate, and early land use by indigenous residents and Euro-American settlers.

Over the past several centuries, trails have transformed into interstates; oaks have been felled and gingko trees planted; streams have been straightened and extended; and marshes and lakes have been drained and dredged, planted and paved. In the maps shown here, it is often this loss that is most apparent. California as we know it today is a fragmented and hybrid landscape, and it certainly no longer abhors a straight line. At first glance, the change is so profound it can be hard to believe these comparisons of the past and present show the same place.

Yet from the heart of Los Angeles to the slopes of Mount Diablo, these places—despite generations and layers of modifications—have remained stubbornly ecological, retaining echoes of earlier patterns. Looking closely, a keen observer can pick out traces of the former world. Marsh fragments are found even in the most urbanized portions of Silicon Valley. Ghost channels lace salt ponds, following centuries-old curves. Small ponds mark the former location of large lakes. Even where wholesale changes have occurred, remnants of past patterns remain in the shape of today’s infrastructure: ports nestled in the footprint of a former estuarine lagoon, for example, or elongated agricultural fields whose shapes mimic that of high ground along the river where riparian forest once thrived.

History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme. This observation, attributed to Mark Twain, applies as elegantly to landscape change as to historical events. Our maps depict a version of California that is at once foreign and deeply familiar. It is the same place and not the same place: it rhymes. Glimpses of past conditions enhance our appreciation for our own messy, complex, modern Californian landscapes. The sheer magnitude of change portrayed here reminds us of the enormous power we have to shape the landscapes we inhabit, and of the wide range of potential options available—options to create diverse, resilient, and beautiful landscapes, inspired by the past and grounded in local potential—as we imagine and then create the future.

Bair Island

Sacramento River

Sacramento River

Port Hueneme

Mugu Lagoon

Mugu Lagoon

Mt. Diablo

Mt. Diablo

Palo Alto to Sunnyvale

Palo Alto to Sunnyvale



John Muir, A Century On

by Glen M. MacDonald

From Boom Fall 2014, Vol 4, No 3

John Muir, the grand old man of the Sierra Nevada, died 100 years ago in a Los Angeles hospital bed with only an unfinished book manuscript for company.¹ He was seventy-six years old. In the final year of his life he had been stung by betrayal, losing the fight of his life: his beloved Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite would soon be dammed to serve the water and power demands of a booming San Francisco.² Yet, here he was, still proselytizing—from his deathbed—on the wonders of nature.

A century later, is anyone still listening?

In his time Muir was a hugely popular writer, environmental activist, and a well-regarded scientist. But how many people actually read his works today? I suspect that most people recognize his name only from the parks, trails, and schools that bear his name. Although his writing was enormously popular in its day, it is somewhat florid to modern ears, as in this passage on Yosemite: “The rose light of dawn creeping higher among the stars, changes to daffodil yellow; then come the enthusiastic sunbeams pouring across the feathery ridges, touching pine after pine, spruce and fir, libocedrus and lovely sequoia, searching every recess until all are awakened and warmed.”³ Likewise, his scientific work was groundbreaking at the time, but today is considered more in line with good natural history than science.

Still Muir’s influence may be felt by every Californian in the vast lands that have been set aside for wilderness, parks, and conservation areas. His science may have faced some revisions4, but Muir’s philosophy is still fundamental to our perceptions of what nature is, why it should be valued, and how it must be managed. 5, 6 How relevant is that philosophy today? Muir’s power to inspire his contemporaries—from presidents on down—was nearly supernatural. Can the old man still move us to deep contemplation or raise our hackles in passion about what nature is and how we treat it?

Abandoned windbreak, 2007, from LA Environs. Photograph by Barron Bixler.

Muir believed that nature revealed the hand of the creator and was, therefore, superior to the works of man. He believed that animals, plants, and even rock formations must be protected against wanton destruction. In turn, immersion in wilderness, he believed, is important for the physical and spiritual health of human beings. As he wrote in his book on national parks, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that the wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not just as fountains of timber and irrigation waters, but as fountains of life.”7 Preserving nature is a life-sustaining quid pro quo.

Muir feared that state and local governments could be induced by powerful special interests to sell off the nation’s wild lands, so he campaigned for a strong national park system. His direct efforts led to the creation of Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks in 1890, and the model he advanced resulted in the addition of seven other national parks in California, from Lassen in 1916 to Pinnacles in 2013. Add to this the many other National Park Service lands, such as the Santa Monica National Recreation Area and the Point Reyes National Seashore, and there is a total of 7,599,139 acres of national park lands in California. In total, the federal government controls 44,087,309 acres of California, a staggering 43 percent of the state.8

But federal agencies weren’t always protection-minded enough for Muir. He had a very public falling out with Gifford Pinchot, first chief of the US National Forest Service. Their initial parting was over Pinchot’s support of sheep grazing on forestlands, and the schism intensified when Pinchot became a leading advocate for the Hetch Hetchy reservoir proposal. During that battle, Muir declared: “Pinchot seems to have lost his head in coal and timber conservation, & forgotten God and his handiwork. He has been our worst enemy in our park fight.”9 At that time, wilderness “preservationists” like Muir often battled with “conservationists” such as Pinchot who believed the primary role of the nation’s forests was more utilitarian—to provide timber and other resources—rather than spiritual. Utilitarian or not, the Forest Service has protected millions of acres of California forestland.

Burning Agricultural Debris, 2013, from A New Pastoral: Views of the San Joaquin Valley. Photograph by Barron Bixler.

The Sierra Nevada still holds one of the most alluring places on Earth in the Yosemite Valley. East of the Sierra Crest, the oldest living trees in the world still cling to the peaks of the White Mountains. Mount Shasta in the north remains majestic, snowcapped, and forest clad. The world’s tallest trees, redwoods, still march down to the sea from ancient strongholds in Del Norte and Humboldt Counties. Much of the Mojave Desert is as remote and eerily beautiful as a century ago. California remains a state of unsurpassed natural grandeur and incredible natural diversity. The preservation of these lands over the past century would have delighted Muir, I am sure, even while problems familiar to him remain. Wild and semiwild landscapes continue to disappear under development. Managing tourists in Yosemite remains a complicated challenge. San Francisco keeps its grip upon Muir’s beloved Hetch Hetchy Valley.

But other modern challenges dwarf these concerns. Expected upheaval from climate change and a growing population larger than anything Muir could have imagined threaten the very heart of his preservationist, wilderness-centric vision for California. At present rates of greenhouse gas production, the average global temperature will likely increase by around 7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the twenty-first century. In California, the impact of this anthropogenic climate change will vary by location and season. Yosemite and the High Sierra could experience an increase of 5 degrees in winter temperatures and 7 degrees in summer temperatures. The annual Sierra snowpack will decrease and the timing of snowmelt will advance earlier into spring.10, 11, 12 As the Sierra Nevada warms, many botanical life zones will shift upward. Subalpine conifer woodlands and lodgepole pine forest will replace significant portions of the alpine vegetation that Muir studied.13

Tree in Field, 2006, from A New Pastoral: Views of the San Joaquin Valley. Photograph by Barron Bixler.

The ramifications of these climatic changes should not be underestimated. In 1871, Muir discovered Black Mountain Glacier in the Sierra Nevada.14, 15 By 1977 it had vanished.16 Today there are 122 mapped glaciers in the Sierra Nevada, and an analysis of fourteen of them shows that since Muir’s time they have shrunk by 31 to 78 percent. If current warming and melting trends continue, every single Sierra Nevada glacier could be gone sometime over the next 50 to 250 years.17

Prolonged drought can cause the direct mortality of vulnerable trees, and it can also weaken their defensives against pathogens such as pine bark beetles.18 The beetles benefit from weakened trees, and they move to higher elevations and regenerate faster due to the higher temperatures. The desiccated, dead, and dying trees in turn provide fuel that promotes larger and more intense fires.

Here, both Muir and Pinchot bear some responsibility. They saw forest fires as a threat to the natural beauty and harmony of the forest, on one hand, and on the other, to the value of timber reserves. The Forest Service and other agencies made an intense effort to put out all forest fires, but fire is a natural part of western conifer forests. Periodic fires keep fuel loads low and stands of trees thinned out, which reduces the spread of diseases and pathogens such as the bark beetle. A century of vigorous fire suppression coupled with climate change has fostered conditions that promote more destructive fires.19, 20

It is clear that Muir’s goal of preserving nature exactly as it was in a specific moment of time is not only impossible but can be deeply harmful to ecosystems. Such an ethos will not serve us in dealing with the environmental challenges of the twenty-first century. We must be adaptable, understanding that some places we love deeply will indelibly change. We must be open to the new natures that will develop—novel and unanticipated combinations of climate, landscape, and species.21

Tree, Terraformed Mountain and Industrial Buildings, 2007, from LA Environs. Photograph by Barron Bixler.

Preservationist though he was, I think Muir would have understood this. Through his writings on ancient glaciations and the Pleistocene history of giant sequoia, he showed a keen interest in changes in climate, landscapes, and forests. The questions he asked and connections he sought to make are the same ones modern climate change scientists ask when assessing the prospects for thousands of endangered species: “Is this species verging on extinction? And if so, then to what causes will its extinction be due? What have been its relations to climate, soils, and other coniferous trees with which it is associated, or with which it competes? What are those relations now? What are they likely to be in the future?”22

At the time of Muir’s death, the population of California stood at three million people. Today the population tops thirty-eight million.23 By 2050 it is expected to grow to over fifty million.24 Although the Sierra Club—in which Muir served as founding president—has had a history of strong views among some members favoring curtailing immigration and stemming population growth, I don’t think this would have been Muir’s way. In 1901 he wrote, “The United States Government has always been proud of the welcome it has extended to good men of every nation, seeking freedom and homes and bread. Let them be welcomed still as nature welcomes them, to the woods, as well as to the prairies and plains. No place is too good for good men, and still there is room.”25 After all, Muir was an immigrant himself.

Yet he could also sympathize with disdain some felt for the masses of tourists who came to Yosemite to briefly view its wonders and then depart without any evidence of a greater spiritual awareness. “All sorts of human stuff is being poured into our valley this year. & the blank fleshly apathy with which most of it comes in contact with the rock & water spirits of the place is most amazing. I do not wonder that the thought of such people being here makes you ‘mad,'” he wrote to a correspondent in 1870. But Muir was also tolerant. His letter continued, “after all Mrs Carr, they are about harmless they climb sprawlingly to their saddles.”26

Brownfield Site, 2007, from A New Pastoral: Views of the San Joaquin Valley. Photograph by Barron Bixler.

Visitor numbers and their impact on Yosemite and other national parks and wilderness areas remains hotly contested today. The number of visitors to Yosemite has risen to almost 3.7 million each year. Karen Klein, in the Los Angeles Times, wrote of Yosemite Valley: “Cars vie for empty spots along the road, and throngs of tourists march along paved paths to the chief attractions, where they almost invariably ignore signs to stay off the rocks. The parking lots are jammed; the concessions are located for convenient shopping, dining, and lodging; and the campground is so crammed with shoulder-to-shoulder tents that it looks more like a ripstop ghetto than the site of a nature experience. Surely this isn’t what Muir had in mind either.”27

What did Muir have in mind? I cannot find in his writings any definitive guidance for striking a balance between tourism and preservation, or people’s needs for living space and wilderness, or which lands should be developed and which should be preserved. Muir fought to preserve what he personally found beautiful and otherwise interesting. In general, this meant scenic mountains and forests. Muir’s bias has remained in place and influenced the selection of national parks over much of the past century. But in the twenty-first century, as we become more sensitive to the preservation of biodiversity and understand how geography and genetics shape species, the limitations of Muir’s seemingly subjective criteria have become more and more apparent. The geographic areas that support species that we hope to preserve may shift outside the borders of our current parks as the climate changes. At the same time, increasing demands on resources will mean that economic and resource constraints that are imposed by setting aside lands will need to be carefully balanced. We need a new set of criteria for preservation and conservation, which in our time have come closer to meaning the same thing.

Will Muir’s legacy—the current national park system and network of other federally protected wilderness areas—survive through the twenty-fist century? It will depend on our capacity and will. In 1914, the US federal debt stood at about 4 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. Today the public federal debt stands at 70 percent of GDP.28 It comes as no surprise that in a time of declining governmental financial capacity some conservative politicians have called for the sale of some of our national parks and other federal lands.

Orchard and Irrigation Ditch, 2007, from A New Pastoral: Views of the San Joaquin Valley. Photograph by Barrom Bixler.

Muir knew there would always be those who disagreed with his preservation values. He had an innate distrust of the elite and particularly the economically powerful. What kept him going was a faith in the transformative power of exposure to nature. He believed that visiting places like Yosemite would promote greater health and happiness for the American population and greater public support for parks. His message was tailored to the Anglo-American world of a century ago. That strategy worked, and the US national park system is its fruit.

But, today, we see a worrying trend. With the nation’s changing ethnic demography and economics some researchers predict that this could lead to a decrease in the proportion of Americans visiting wilderness areas and parks such as Yosemite.29 One wonders if this could ultimately lead to an erosion of broad public support for parks, wilderness, and conservation.

Bringing more people to Yosemite—as Muir might have suggested—may no longer be the best way to ensure societal value of the natural world. An alternative is to bring nature to people through urban parks, open spaces, and wildlands at the edges of cities. This can be done in a way that sets aside new land for conservation that is accessible for an urban population and affordable for cash-strapped agencies to oversee, as we’ve seen with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy in Los Angeles. Through a joint partnership of federal, state, and local government and private parties, 450,000 acres have been put aside for conservation and recreational uses. The capacity and cost for management is shouldered by multiple partners making the costs more affordable for each. In many ways, this is a model for the future. This experience of nature may be different than Muir envisioned in his preoccupation with remote wilderness parks such as Yosemite, but he was an innovator and a realist. I think he would have seen the value in such arrangements.

Salton Sea, 2007, from LA Environs. Photograph by Barron Bixler.

I think we can find practical solutions to twenty-first century conservation problems very much in the spirit of Muir’s work. But what about Muir’s work itself? Can his writings and deeds continue to excite and incite despite the century between us? I’ve read much of what Muir wrote. His unbridled enthusiasm for the mountains and forests of California is at once naïvely optimistic by modern standards and completely infectious. It made us remember the same naïve exuberance of childhood and adolescent adventures in Yosemite and the Sierra.

I also reflected upon his darker writings regarding Hetch Hetchy and the loss of that battle in the final year of his life. I thought about how he might have retained his faith that the people were with him even if the vested interests were not. Yet In 2012 when San Franciscans voted on a proposal to study the potential to restore Hetch Hetchy Valley, 77 percent rejected the idea. Muir would have been crushed.

I imagine him raging again: “These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar. Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”30


Thanks to Hollis Lenderking, UCLA Class of 1971, for his vision and generous endowment of the John Muir Memorial Chair in Geography at UCLA and support for this issue of Boom and the Muir Symposium, “A Century Beyond Muir.” Thanks to my parents, Walter and Mildred MacDonald, for taking me to Yosemite over the years and through the seasons and thus planting the seeds that led to a life of working in the Sierra Nevada and many other wild places around the world. 1 Historical facts regarding and insights into the life and philosophy of John Muir are drawn from Edwin Teale, The Wilderness World and John Muir (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1954); Holway Jones, John Muir and the Sierra Club: The Battle for Yosemite (San Francisco: The Sierra Club, 1965); James Clarke, The Life and Adventures of John Muir (San Diego: The Word Shop, Inc., 1979); Dennis Williams, God’s Wilds: John Muir’s Vision of Nature (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2002); Donald Worster, A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). 2 See Holway R. Jones, John Muir and the Sierra Club: The Battle for Yosemite (San Francisco: The Sierra Club, 1965); Robert W. Righter, The Battle Over Hetch Hetchy: America’s Most Controversial Dam and the Birth of Modern Environmentalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). Calls to remove the dam and restore the valley continue. See Dan Lungren and John Van de Kamp, “Restore Yosemite? It Can Be Done.” Los Angeles Times, 3 December 2013. 3 John Muir, Our National Parks (Boston: Hughton Mifflin, 1916), 90. 4 François Matthes, François Matthes and the Marks of Time: Yosemite and the High Sierra, Fritiof Fryxell, ed. (San Francisco: The Sierra Club, 1962); Jeffry Schaffer, The Geomorphic Evolution of the Yosemite Valley and Sierra Nevada Landscapes: Solving the Riddles in the Rocks (Berkeley: Wilderness Press, 1997). 5 Robert Righter, The Battle Over Hetch Hetchy: America’s Most Controversial Dam and the Birth of Modern Environmentalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). 6 Daniel Philippon, Conserving Words: How American Nature Writers Shaped the Environmental Movement (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005). 7 John Muir, Our National Parks, 3. 8 California Protected Areas Database (CPAD) Statistics Report for March 2014, accessed 7 June 2014, http://www.calands.org/uploads/docs/CPADStatisticsReport_2014a.pdf. 9 Letter from John Muir to [Henry F.] Osborn, 8 February1910. University of the Pacific Holt-Atherton Special Collections, accessed 7 June 2014, http://digitalcollections.pacific.edu/cdm/ref/collection/muirletters/id/7567. 10 Katharine Hayhoe et al., “Emissions Pathways, Climate Change, and Impacts on California,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 101, no. 34 (2004): 12422–12427. 11 Cal-Adapt developed by UC Berkeley’s Geospatial Innovation Facility (GIF) with funding and advisory oversight by the California Energy Commission’s Public Interest Energy Research (PIER) Program, and advisory support from Google.org. Data from Scripps Institution of Oceanography California Nevada Applications Program (CNAP), accessed 7 June 2014, http://cal-adapt.org/temperature/century/. 12 S.E. Godsey et al., “Effects of Changes in Winter Snowpacks on Summer Low Flows: Case Studies in the Sierra Nevada, California, USA, Hydrological Processes DOI: 10.1002/hyp.9943 (2013). 13 William Cornwell et al., “Climate Change Impacts on California Vegetation: Physiology, Life History, and Ecosystem Change,” California Energy Commission Publication number: CEC-500-2012-023 (2012). 14 John Muir, “On Actual Glaciers in California,” American Journal of Science and Arts, Third Series, (1873), 69–71. 15 John Muir, The Mountains of California (New York: The Century Company, 1894). 16 Bill Guyton, Glaciers of California: Modern Glaciers, Ice Age Glaciers, Origin of Yosemite Valley, and a Glacier Tour in the Sierra Nevada (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2001). 17 Hassan Basagic, cand A. G. Fountain, “Quantifying 20th Century Glacier Change in the Sierra Nevada, California,” Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research 43 (2011), 317–330. 18 Alejandro Guarín and Alan H. Taylor, “Drought Triggered Tree Mortality in Mixed Conifer Forests in Yosemite National Park, California, USA,” Forest Ecology and Management 218 (2004), 229–244. 19 Alejandro Guarín and Alan H. Taylor, Forest Ecology and Management (2004). 20 Williams, A. Park et al., “Forest Responses to Increasing Aridity and Warmth in the Southwestern United States,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107 (2010), 21289–21294. 21 Constance Millar et al., “Climate Change And Forests Of The Future: Managing in the Face of Uncertainty,” Ecological Applications 17 (2007), 2145–2151. 22 John Muir, “On the Post-Glacial History of Sequoia Gigantea,” Proceeding of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Buffalo Meeting (August 1876), 3. 23 California Department of Finance, “E-7. California Population Estimates, with Components of Change and Crude Rates, July 1, 1900–2013,” accessed 8 June 2014, http://www.dof.ca.gov/research/demographic/reports/estimates/e-7/view.php. 24 California Department of Finance, “New Population Projections: California To Surpass 50 Million in 2049,” accessed 8 June 2014, http://www.dof.ca.gov/research/demographic/reports/projections/p-1/documents/Projections_Press_Release_2010-2060.pdf. 25 John Muir, Our National Parks p 391. 26 Letter from John Muir to [Jeanne C. Carr], [1870] May 29, University of the Pacific Holt-Atherton Special Collections, accessed 8 June 2014, http://digitalcollections.pacific.edu/cdm/ref/collection/muirletters/id/11718. 27 Karen Klein, “On Hetch Hetchy, John Muir Was Wrong,” Los Angeles Times, 15 August 2012. 28 US Government Accounting Office, “Federal Debt Held by the Public as a Share of GDP (1797–2012),” accessed 8 June 2014, http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/661580.pdf. 29 James Bowker et al., “Wilderness and Primitive Area Recreation Participation and Consumption: An Examination of Demographic and Spatial Factors,” Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics 38 (2006), 317–326. 30 John Muir, The Yosemite (New York: The Century Press, 1912), 261–262.


Future of Nature

From Boom Winter 2013, Vol. 3, No. 4

We asked H. Bradley Shaffer, a distinguished professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the director of the La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science, about the future of nature.

Boom: What do we need to do now to preserve biodiversity in the future in California?

Brad Shaffer: One of the things I am really hoping we can accomplish is to collect baseline population genomics data, ideally for every species of plant and animal in California, and beyond for that matter, so that we know what kind of genetic diversity currently exists across the state. What we have now is a poor substitute for what we had, but it’s all we’ve got. And as we move forward, having that baseline is really useful in that it allows us evaluate how we’re doing in ten years or twenty years or whatever—how we’re doing in terms of retaining what we had and how we’re doing in terms of potentially improving on what we had or what we lost.

Boom: What is “conservation genomics” and why do we need it?

Shaffer: The relationship between conservation and genetics is a very old and very deep relationship, and it simply says that there is a lot of information in the genetics of wild populations of organisms that’s relevant to how we should conserve and protect them. Say you have a species that is in trouble and we want to try to come up with a conservation plan for it. One of the things we want to do is conserve the diversity within that species. If that species occurs in Central California and in Southern California, we would like to know if they are genetically very different on either side of the Tehachapi Mountains that separate those two parts of their range. If there are genetically different parts of a species’ range, we want to make sure we conserve populations in genetic region one, genetic region two, etc. You can also use genetics to learn about how plants and animals move across landscapes. You can do studies of migration and gene flow—the movement of individuals and their genes—by using genetics. When people use the term “conservation genomics,” what they mean is scaling up the genetics that we would have traditionally done in the past to much larger and more informative studies. So, traditionally we might have studied five or ten or fifteen genes, and now genomics means scaling that up by one or two or three orders of magnitude and studying a lot of genetic material from those individuals and populations in a species—going up to a thousand or ten thousand genes. In principle, it could mean studying the entire genome and analyzing all of the genetic variation found in a species, although that hasn’t been done except in few model systems to date.

Boom: Does conservation genomics mean that we can afford to be ecologically risky or reckless––as long as we are going to conserve these genomes, then it doesn’t matter about the effects we have on the environment?

Shaffer: Let’s say we had full genomic knowledge of population variation for every species of plant and animal. Would that allow us to be ecologically risky or reckless? Hopefully not. It would allow us to be ecologically and environmentally better informed in terms of what our actions will mean for those populations of plants and animals. What that might mean is that certain things that we thought we had to be careful about, in fact, with that greater depth of knowledge we now feel we don’t have to be as careful about. Other things we felt that we didn’t need to be careful about, perhaps we do. My way of looking at it is that it will allow us to better understand what it means to be reckless and avoid it because we’ll be better informed. Deeper knowledge does not provide carte blanche to do things that are going to destroy or scramble the environment even more. Hopefully, it gives us better insights into what the consequences of different actions, different environmental and ecological actions, will be.

Boom: How does conservation genomics change the way we think about traditional threats to conservation, like increasing land conversion, infrastructure, and agriculture? Does genomics show us that species might work around or adapt to these threats?

Shaffer: Genomics may in some cases either inform us or allow us to make more educated predictions about how organisms will deal with those threats. It can do that by informing us about specific ways that organisms adapt to the environment and change. It can also allow us to make better predictions about what they will do as they adapt to human mediated change. Climate change, and how organisms will and will not adapt to it, is a great example. If you learn about how organisms in the past—or currently—have been able to successfully adapt to some natural change, and humans are currently creating similar kinds of changes, that should help us better predict how organisms might adapt in the face of human disturbances and environmental challenges.

Boom: What would you put in a time capsule for 2050?

Shaffer: I’d put two things. One is a frozen sample of a native plant—say, an oak tree acorn—and a weed to look at changes in those species’ DNA over forty years as they adapt to climate and other human-mediated changes. The other is a sample of dirt from Pershing Square in downtown LA, from the Santa Monica Mountains, and from the beach in Santa Monica to be able to look at changes in soil bacteria and fungi over the same time period.


Image at top courtesy of Ed Schipul.


What Is Sustainable?

by Miriam Greenberg

From Boom Winter 2013, Vol. 3, No. 4

Toward critical sustainability studies.

Editor’s Note: This is only an excerpt from Miriam Greenberg’s article. 

Sustainability is a futuristic, even utopian, project par excellence. As with all utopian projects, sustainability offers a vision of the future to galvanize us to imagine our world otherwise and engage in the work necessary to change it.

Sustainability asks us to define those things of greatest value in our present that ought to be sustained in order to achieve this utopian vision of the future. Simultaneously, it forces us to consider those things that are not of value, and should not be sustained. Sustainability is thus a striking example of the power and limits of utopian ideals.

This dream of a sustainable future, in all its complexity is deeply rooted in California. Sustainability is now a global discourse. But California has played an out-sized role over the last century in promoting the discourse, as well as in embodying sustainability in the eyes of the world. This has especially been the case in California’s most famous green zone, the Bay Area, which has been at the forefront of eco-oriented lifestyles, cultural experiments, and politics for over a half century.¹

Wildflower mural in Union City by Mona Caron. Courtesy of the artist.

Indeed, the Bay Area is often imagined as the heartland of “ecotopia.” Ernest Callenbach coined the term in his 1975 cult novel of the same name, in which an Edenic Northern California, with San Francisco as its capital and the Sierra Nevada as its defensible border, has seceded from the rest of the nation. Ecotopia helped establish a futurist mythos in which sustainability is identifiably Californian, and California itself becomes less a place than an ideal—one that others around the world can only dream of attaining.²

This ecotopian vision has had remarkably wide and enduring influence. Given the global cultural, media, and economic influence of California, as well as the dramatic natural attributes of the West Coast, sustainability projects hatched in the Golden State have had something of a branding advantage.³ Green Californian vistas have been reimagined through advertising, product design, regional vision plans, lifestyle magazines, architectural experiments, films, and literature. They have also had a profound impact on modern, eco-oriented organizations and social movements—from the Sierra Club to the alternative food movement—that remain associated with the state’s unique landscape and supposedly unique state of mind.

This has had the effect of reifying a dominant vision of sustainability, providing authentically “Californian” images, experiences, faces, and products to ground this inherently abstract notion, and has thereby solidified the state’s reputation—and in particular iconic cities, regions, and landscapes—as the spatial and cultural embodiments of our sustainable future. California, and especially Northern California, have become a sustainable mecca to make pilgrimage to, gain inspiration from, and seek to emulate.

If Northern California is cast as the capital of our sustainable imaginary, Southern California is its inverse: a dystopian nightmare of sprawl, smog, and reckless overconsumption. Ecotopia‘s promised land was based on a regional binary of North/South, with the dividing line drawn somewhere below San Jose. The Central Valley, meanwhile, is erased altogether. As explored through Kristin Miller’s photo essay in this volume, this binary has been rooted in, and an inspiration for, science fiction fantasies of film, television, and literature since the 1960s, preoccupied as this genre has been with the prospect of imminent environmental and social collapse.

Photograph by Mona Caron.

To scholars of utopia, this juxtaposition of expansive dreams and rigid boundaries will be familiar. For as with all utopian projects, visions of sustainability are both vitally hopeful and frought with contradictions. Collective “wish images” of our idealized future have long been presented as universal and all-inclusive across lines of class, race, and geography, while also drawing boundaries that exclude. They have been portrayed as monolithic and consensual, while necessarily being shaped by multiple and often competing imaginings. And while appearing as visions of an ideal future world, these visions are inevitably cobbled together from past experiences and ways of knowing, which themselves go unacknowledged.4

In everyday life, these contradictions lead to real dilemmas for all of us working in the field of sustainability—as teachers, scholars, practitioners, activists, and citizens. As urgent as our current situation is, and as pressing as our desire is to push for a sustainable future now, if we are to overcome these dilemmas we first need to step back and ask some very basic questions about the nature of our goal. Namely, what is to be sustained and what is not? And who gets to choose and who does not?

Upon trying to answer these simple questions, one soon realizes the inherently political nature of the pursuit of sustainability. The complexity of these politics assert themselves even though—perhaps especially because—sustainability’s adherents and promoters tend to view and present the concept as so common sense and unquestionably good as to be “post-political.”5

This is an alluring proposition—who doesn’t want to sustain something, and who doesn’t want their ideal future to be easily achieved? Moreover, any argument against sustainability can seem like one for the forces of the apocalypse. Yet, seeking answers to these questions, one sees that in fact sustainability is neither simple nor singular. Rather, multiple sustainabilities are in circulation, and in competition. What’s more, these different versions reflect the particular values of the individuals, communities, industries, cities, nations, and so on, that are in position to define the term. Hence, the sustainable future we seek to build depends entirely upon whose sustainability we are talking about.

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El Camino mural in Hillsdale by Mona Caron. Image courtesy of the artist.


Image at top by Mona Caron. Courtesy of the artist.

1 Richard Walker, The Country in the City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008).

2 Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia (Berkeley: Bantam Tree Books, 1975).

3 For example, see Abraham F. Lowenthal, Global California: Rising to the Cosmopolitan Challenge (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009) and the program in Global Californian Studies at UC San Diego: http://globalcalifornia.ucsd.edu/.

4 My approach to the study of utopian ideas is particularly influenced by Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. For analysis of Benjamin’s concept of dialectical “wish images,” see Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), chap. 5. For critical theories of utopia, see David Harvey, Spaces of Hope (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000) and Frederick Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005).

5 On the “post-political” uses of sustainability discourse, see Erik Swyngedouw, “The Antinomies of the Postpolitical City: In Search of a Democratic Politics of Environmental Production,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 33 (2009): no. 3, 601–620; and Melissa Checker, “Wiped Out by the Greenwave: Environmental Gentrification and the Paradoxical Politics of Urban Sustainability,” City and Society 23 (2011): no. 2, 210–229.