Tag: History


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.


Stop Hunting Ishi

by William Bauer

From Boom Fall 2014, Vol 4, No 3

Ishi must be tired. For 160 years, people have hunted him and other California Indians. In the mid-nineteenth century, settlers, miners, and ranchers tracked Ishi and his family in revenge for the killing of livestock. In the early twentieth century, anthropologists trailed after Ishi, searching for North America’s “last wild Indian.” In 2000, Maidu and Pit River tribal members tracked down his brain, which Dr. Saxton Pope had removed at Ishi’s autopsy and Professor Alfred Kroeber had sent to the Smithsonian. In 2012, photographers Byron Wolfe and Troy Jollimore continued the quest to capture Ishi, visiting Deer Creek in search of his wilderness. Settlers, anthropologists, and indigenous people have hounded Ishi for different purposes. Understanding why people hunt Ishi tells us much about how Californians envision Indians and their past, present, and future.

The hunting of Ishi dates to the mid-nineteenth century. After the California Gold Rush, miners, ranchers, and farmers invaded California and occupied or expelled Indians from seemingly unused areas. Domesticated livestock trampled the food sources that indigenous people harvested and chased away deer. In response, California Indians killed livestock, both as a source of food and as a symbolic attack on the animals that troubled their economic systems. In April 1871, four cowboys hunted a small band of Yahis, which included Ishi. While working in the Sacramento Valley, the four men came across a trail of blood, presumably from one of the cows the men herded. Following the track, the cowboys flushed some Yahis cutting chunks of flesh from a dead steer. The Yahis fled the scene. Rather than pursue them, the cowboys returned to their camp, found a hunting dog, and stalked the Indians to a cave. The hunters opened fire, killing about thirty Yahis in what one historian has called “the last known large massacre of California Indians.”¹ Ishi was one of the few survivors of this band.

Portrait of Ishi by E.H. Kemp, July 1912. Courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology and the Regents of the University of California.


The so-called Kingsley Cave Massacre culminated more than one hundred years of hunting California Indians. In the eighteenth century, Spanish Franciscan priests and soldiers tracked down native people who fled the missions. After independence, Mexican officials trailed California Indians who stole horses from ranchos and sold them to fur traders. Beginning in the 1850s, miners and ranchers hunted California Indians accused of killing livestock or ambushing settlers.

What prompted Euro-Americans and Americans to hunt California Indians? In part, they considered Indians socially and biologically inferior. Franciscans believed California Indians were children who, without the Franciscans, would quickly satiate their “brutal appetites.” Franciscans pursued California Indians, especially those who ran away from the missions, to protect them from themselves. Americans, on the other hand, argued California Indians were a racially degraded people. Americans called California Indians “diggers,” a word that rhymes with the racial epithet attached to African Americans. The racial pseudoscience favored by many white Americans at the time argued that California Indians had dark skins and were, therefore, closer to animals than white men—and so, Americans hunted California Indians because they considered them little better than wild animals.²

Racial ideology only partially justified the hunting of California Indians. Spanish, Mexicans, and Americans also pursued California Indians they considered criminals. Franciscans believed California Indians owed a spiritual debt to the priests once they entered the missions and accepted baptism. Leaving the mission was tantamount to breaking an indentured servant contract, and Indians needed to return to the mission.³

Both Mexicans and Americans tracked down Indians for the theft of property, such as horses and cattle. In nineteenth-century California, men like those depicted “protecting the settlers” in J. Ross Browne’s The Coast Rangers hunted Indians to protect American lives and property from Indians. Americans, like the four cowboys, linked the acquisition of property to their social identities. An attack on one was an attack on all and deserved retribution.4

Ishi’s death mask, 1920. Courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology and the Regents of the University of California.

Hunting Indians had disastrous consequences for California’s indigenous people. In the late eighteenth century, more than 300,000 Indians lived in California. By the time of the Gold Rush, 150,000 Indians lived within the state’s boundaries. The worst, of course, was yet to come. By 1900, the hunting of California Indians, in conjunction with disease and starvation, reduced the population to little more than 25,000. The near eradication of California Indians was the ultimate desire of a settler society that needed indigenous people to disappear, so that their land in particular, and California as a state, could be a country for white men and white families. Ishi’s story is the most famous of these narratives of hunting California Indians and the dramatic population decline among Native Californians. By 1911, the hunting of Yahi had apparently reduced their population to this one man.

The hunting of Ishi was not always physically violent. Beginning in 1909, anthropologists from the University of California tracked Ishi. Two years earlier, surveyors had been looking for a suitable site for a dam on Mill Creek in rural northeastern California when they came upon Ishi’s camp. A concealed Ishi welcomed the surveyors into camp with two warning arrows shot from a bow. After disturbing an elderly woman, likely Ishi’s mother, and ransacking the camp, the men informed Chico and Oroville newspapers of the “wild Indians” in the mountains. Although there were some skeptics, many believed the story. Ishi and other Yahis had spent the years between the Kingsley Creek massacre and the invasion of their camp pilfering food, glass, and metal from cabins. Word of the discovery of Ishi’s camp reached anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, who dispatched one of his protégés, T.T. Waterman, to hunt for these elusive Indians. Unlike the cowboys who perpetrated the Kingsley Cave Massacre, Kroeber and Waterman did not want to kill Indians. They wanted to study them before they disappeared.

Kroeber pursued “wild Indians” because he believed California Indian cultures were vanishing. In 1900, Kroeber arrived in California and soon assumed the reins of the Hearst Museum and the University of California’s anthropology department. Kroeber embarked on a long career studying California Indian languages and cultures. Following the guidance of his mentor and academic adviser Franz Boas, Kroeber endeavored to salvage what was remaining of California Indian cultures and languages before they disappeared in the face of modernity. Kroeber tracked reliable informants among the Mojaves, Yuroks, and Yukis. The possibility of finding “wild Indians,” supposedly uncontaminated by modernity, was too much for Kroeber to pass up, so he dispatched Waterman to the rugged northeastern mountains of California to track down Ishi and bring him in.

Waterman’s two trips to Deer Creek were fruitless, but Kroeber’s pursuit would not be in vain. In 1911, Ishi turned up at a slaughterhouse in Oroville and was subsequently captured by workers, who turned him over to the local sheriff. Word of the captured “wild man” again reached Kroeber, who obtained permission from the Office of Indian Affairs to bring Ishi from Oroville, where he stayed in the town jail, to San Francisco. For the next five years, until his death, Ishi lived in San Francisco, working as a janitor at Kroeber’s museum, sharing the Yahi language with anthropologists and demonstrating Yahi craft making (especially arrowhead making) for museum patrons. In 1914, Kroeber insisted that Ishi return to Deer Creek, where he hoped that Ishi would show him what life was like in the wild. For Kroeber, the wilderness was a haven from modernity and urbanization. Kroeber took pictures of Ishi hunting, calling rabbits, and butchering a deer. He and Ishi also mapped the Yahi homeland. For Ishi, though, Deer Creek was not some pristine, premodern landscape. Instead, it was a landscape haunted by those killed by modern Indian hunters, such as the four cowboys at Kingsley Cave. Ishi wept when he came upon the location of his mother’s burial. Another day, Ishi came to camp and told the others that he thought he had heard his deceased mother and sister’s voices on one of the trails.5

That Kroeber’s hunting of Ishi was not physically violent does not mean it was benign. Kroeber’s anthropology depicted California Indians as primitive, echoing the racialist ideas of the nineteenth century. California Indians lived in “tribelets” not “tribes.” They did not practice warfare, but participated in small-scale battles where no one was really hurt. Kroeber created essentialist categories about California Indian identity that denied Ishi and other native people’s modernity.

In 1914, when Ishi returned to Oroville on the way to Deer Creek, town residents did not believe it was the same man who had been captured near the slaughterhouse. Homer Speegle, who saw Ishi in the Oroville jail in 1911, noted that Ishi was considerably heavier than before and wore American-style clothing, hardly the trappings of an Indian, let alone the last wild Yahi. Because American Indians could never be modern, according to Kroeber’s standard, they had to be vanishing. Kroeber’s version of Ishi has since stood for the fate of all California Indians, who ostensibly disappeared in the early twentieth century only to be, in some people’s view, shockingly resurrected in the late twentieth century with the advent of Indian gaming.

In the mid-1990s, another group took up the pursuit of Ishi: California Indians themselves. Art Angle, a Maidu from Oroville, founded the Butte County Native American Cultural Committee, with the goal of repatriating Maidu remains from museums. Angle knew Ishi’s story and wanted to return his ashes to the Oroville area. He had also heard rumors of Ishi’s autopsy and the removal of his brain, and he did not want to bring Ishi’s remains home incomplete. Anthropologist Orin Starn met with Angle and tracked Ishi’s brain to a vat in a Smithsonian storage facility in College Park, Maryland. The Butte County committee and Starn met with Smithsonian officials and initiated the process of repatriating Ishi’s brain to California. The Smithsonian, however, returned Ishi’s brain to the Redding Rancheria, home of the Yahi’s linguistic relatives, the Pit River people, rather than to Angle’s Butte County committee. In 2000, Mickey Gimmell and other Pit River people buried Ishi’s brain and ashes at an undisclosed location along Deer Creek.6

Angle, Starn, and, eventually, Gimmell’s pursuit of Ishi were part of a cultural and political renewal among twentieth-century California Indians. The origins of this revival are rooted in post–World War II California. Marie Potts, a Maidu activist, worked with other California Indians to agitate for land claims in the 1940s and 1950s and was a member of the National Congress on American Indians. In 1969, American Indians in San Francisco occupied Alcatraz Island. Two years later, Mickey Gimmell, members of the American Indian Movement, and other Pit River people took over Pit River land that was owned by Pacific Gas and Electric. In 1979, Tillie Hardwick, a Pomo woman, led a Supreme Court case that eventually overturned the dreadful termination of California Indian tribes earlier in the twentieth century. In 1988, the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians won a court case that paved the way for the expansion of Indian gaming in California and the rest of the United States.

Early on, Ishi was not a symbol for this tribal sovereignty movement. He lacked the charisma of leaders such as Geronimo, Sitting Bull, or Crazy Horse, none of whom were Californians. But the efforts of the Butte County committee and Redding Rancheria to track down Ishi’s remains and properly bury them in northern California were assertions of sovereignty, and so Ishi became a symbol of reclaiming what has been lost to the ravages of California colonialism.

Since the 1760s, in one way or another, Ishi has been vital to stories Californians tell about themselves and their state. At first, Ishi and his kin represented the savage Indian on the frontier, indiscriminately killing livestock as well as white men, women, and children, and deserving a violent end himself. Ishi has symbolized the anthropological Indian, practicing precontact ways supposedly uncontaminated by modernity. Ishi has signified tribal sovereignty and self-determination, the renaissance of indigenous politics and culture made possible by the survival of indigenous people and nations, and the economic opportunities of Indian gaming.

Yet, Ishi has also been elusive. He survived genocide. Ishi was never the “wild man” or “stone age man” that Kroeber and others depicted. The tussle between the Butte County Native American Cultural Committee and the Redding Rancheria over the return of his brain and ashes to Deer Creek revealed unresolved interethnic divisions among northern California’s Indian nations.

Although writer Troy Jollimore and photographer Byron Wolfe pursued Ishi’s landscape, history, and memory, and not Ishi himself, Jollimore noted that he wanted to experience something associated with Ishi, something “mystical or numinous.” Instead the experience was “ordinary and matter of fact.”7

As with many aspects of American Indian history, people often look for those things that tell them something about themselves, not about indigenous people. People have searched for Ishi not necessarily to learn more about Ishi, but to inform their own understandings of the world. This may be one reason that Ishi has avoided capture. Perhaps it is a good time to stop hunting Ishi and let him rest.


1 Benjamin Madley, “American Genocide: The California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 2009), 490–91.

2 On the racial ideas applied to California Indians, see James Rawls, Indians of California: The Changing Image (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984) and Tomás Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

3 On California Indians and the Spanish mission system, see the exceptional work of Steven Hackel, Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis: Indian-Spanish Relations in Colonial California, 1769–1850 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005) and James Sandos, Converting California: Indians and Franciscans in the Missions (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).

4 On the Mexican and American periods, see Albert Hurtado, Indian Survival on the California Frontier (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), Brendan C. Lindsay, Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846–1873 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), and Madley, “American Genocide.”

5 One of the most famous books to consider Ishi’s life is Theodora Kroeber, Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002, 1961). A revision, that places Ishi’s life in the context of modernization and ideas of wilderness, is Douglas Sackman, Wild Men: Ishi and Kroeber in the Wilderness of Modern America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). Ishi scholars should also consult Richard Burrill’s encyclopedic work Ishi’s Untold Story in His First World: A Biography of the Last of His Band of Yahi Indians in North America, Parts I–IV, (Red Bluff: The Anthro Company, 2011–2012).

6 Orin Starn covers the repatriation of Ishi’s remains in Ishi’s Brain: In Search of America’s Last “Wild” Indian (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004). The issue of repatriation also produced a retrospective on anthropology, Ishi and his place in California history. See Karl Kroeber and Clifton Kroeber, eds., Ishi in Three Centuries (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003).

7 Troy Jollimore, “Some Version of the Same River: Rephotographing Ishi,” this volume.


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.


Shaping the City from Below

by Chris Carlsson

From Boom Summer 2014, Vol 4, No 2

San Francisco’s history offers lessons for the future

San Franciscans have a useful history of resisting grand development plans, whether they were driven by market forces, corporate developers, or the social engineering visions of politicians and city planners. As attention sharpens on the dire social consequences of the latest tech boom, memories of past battles bolster new activists in their efforts to stand up to the most recent waves of evictions, gentrification, and ill-conceived development plans that are presented as crucial and even inevitable for a modern city. Read one way, this short history demonstrates the relentless power of money in defining who is a San Franciscan and who can stay and who must go. But read another way, this history shows that there is historic precedent for optimism that the worst consequences of today’s creative destruction of the city can be averted if we know and use our history.

The Freeway Revolt: In the middle of the twentieth century, at the height of a global era of brutalist modernization, San Franciscans stopped massive elevated cement highways from being built through the Mission, the Haight, North Beach, the Sunset, the Richmond, and wrapping around the entire northern waterfront of the city. In 1956, the California Department of Highways announced plans for freeways crisscrossing the city. Dozens of community groups emerged to combat the plans and over 70,000 residents signed petitions opposing the plans. By 1959, many specific routes had been cancelled by the city’s Board of Supervisors, a process culminating in votes in 1964 and 1965 defeating a proposed Panhandle/Golden Gate Park freeway and a Golden Gateway freeway. Through the Freeway Revolt, San Franciscans stunned the rest of California and the nation by refusing to accept federal and state plans to build freeways around and through San Francisco, and showed the power of activist residents to shape a city.

Picketers protesting against the Southern Freeway marching at City Hall. Courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.


Fontana Towers: When twenty-six-story towers were proposed for the northern end of Polk Street and Van Ness Avenue in 1962, Russian Hill residents hired the then-liberal Republican attorney Caspar Weinberger to fight the project. Though they lost that battle and the Fontana Towers stand today, Weinberger developed an argument on behalf of a public right to access and view the bay, which ultimately won the day. The city eventually passed height-limitation regulations that prevented any more tall buildings from being built along the waterfront. The work of the Russian Hill residents and Weinberger echoes into the twenty-first century in the form of a ballot measure in November 2013 that defeated developers’ plans to build a 136-foot-tall multimillion dollar condominium project at 8 Washington Street, just south and west of the iconic Ferry Building. Another local ballot proposition this June seeks to preserve height restrictions on waterfront projects unless specifically overturned by San Francisco voters.

This photograph ran in the San Francisco Examiner with the caption “A huge crane smashes into kindling wood one of the blighted dwellings in the 1300 block of Ellis St. as the city steps up its war against slums in the Western Addition.” Courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.


The Redevelopment Agency’s “Slum Clearance” Programs: Throughout the 1960s, activist coalitions placed themselves literally and ideologically in the paths of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency’s bulldozers and aggressive “slum clearance” programs. In the late 1950s, the agency began targeting the heart of Italian North Beach’s economic life: the Produce Market that once sat just north and east of downtown. By the mid-1960s, the Produce Market had been relocated south, and the former blocks of warehouses and food distribution facilities were replaced by freeway ramps and high-rise offices and apartments. Next, the Redevelopment Agency chose a corridor of dilapidated and overcrowded housing along Geary Street that ran through Japantown, adjacent to the large African American community in the Fillmore. Under the directorship of M. Justin Herman—San Francisco’s version of Robert Moses—dozens of blocks of Victorians were bulldozed, Geary was widened into a surface expressway, and a new Japantown was erected, with investments from Japan. When the Redevelopment Agency turned south of the new Geary Boulevard, the Western Addition Community Organization—and later the Western Addition Project Area Committee—put up fierce opposition to Herman’s plans, including the first lawsuits to mandate replacement housing. Although most of the black Fillmore was leveled, local black churches, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and other organizations financed rebuilding of cooperative housing blocks.

MCOR Coalition: In 1966, a diverse coalition of white conservative homeowners, Catholic and Presbyterian-based social service organizations, Latino political groups and union locals, and radical left members of the Progressive Labor Party and Mission Tenants Union established the Mission Council on Redevelopment (MCOR).¹ MCOR demanded veto power over any Redevelopment Agency-led efforts in the Mission, and although Mayor John F. Shelley would not agree to their demand, the city’s Board of Supervisors acceded to the united neighborhood opposition and squashed urban renewal plans for the Mission. MCOR then disbanded, having fulfilled its central purpose.

Flor de Maria Crane, MCO member, speaking to San Francisco Supervisor Terry Francois in 1969. Photography by Spence Limbocker, courtesy of Accion Latina Archive, El Tecolote Photograph Collection.


MCO Continues the Work: A year and a half after MCOR disbanded, dozens of organizations and thousands of members formed the Mission Coalition Organization (MCO). They carried on campaigns to protect tenants from landlords, to gain employment for neighborhood youth, and to develop a range of social services for the Mission. MCO negotiated successfully with Mayor Joe Alioto to gain control over Model Cities Corporation money from the federal government. Over time, responsibility for managing those funds eventually shaped the organization in a more bureaucratic and less activist direction. One of its lasting legacies was the establishment of the Mission Housing Development Corporation, an agency that pioneered nonprofit housing development concurrent with similar efforts by the Tenants and Owners Development Corporation. Even after its dissolution, MCO left a legacy of dignity and self-respect that is hard to measure, plainly visible among the dozens of social service agencies in the neighborhood and the resilient self-confidence of the Latino community.

Construction site of the Yerba Buena Center and convention hall, Marriott Hotel in background, South of Market district. Courtesy of Dave Glass.


TOOR’s Fight to Save SRO Hotels: In 1969, retired longshoremen and seafarers organized residents to form Tenants and Owners Opposed to Redevelopment to fight the Redevelopment Agency’s plans to clear the area south of Market on Third and Fourth Streets from Mission to Harrison, the city’s so-called “skid row.” The Agency sought to replace the largely single-room occupancy hotels that filled the area with a new stadium, convention center, and a cluster of high-rises. The retired longshoremen and seafarers—many with communist and left-wing roots in the 1930s in San Francisco—knew how to organize. Their lawsuits successfully guaranteed one-for-one replacement of housing units lost to redevelopment, and housing for displaced residents. Negotiations ensued, and by the mid-1970s, clearance of the area had been accomplished, but in exchange, hundreds of senior housing units were built, followed by museums, cultural centers, an ice rink, a children’s activity center, a Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial, and a two-acre public park. The convention center was forced to go underground, and no stadium was built in the area. The first buildings in the area were Woolf House I and II, and the Mendelson House, all subsidized senior housing, named after George Woolf and Peter Mendelson, two of the most stalwart activists who had opposed the Redevelopment Agency.

Longtime anti-eviction activist William Sorro protesting on the steps of San Francisco City Hall. Courtesy of Chris Carlsson.


The International Hotel: Late 1960s and early 1970s battles surrounding the International Hotel, or I-Hotel, symbolized for many an epic struggle between long-time residents of immigrant backgrounds and the forces of capital and modernization. The small brick residential hotel had been home to Filipino migrant laborers for decades and was the last remnant of what once had been a ten-block long “Manilatown” along Kearny Street. Some of the elderly men living in the I-Hotel had called it home since the 1920s. Sitting at the north end of Kearny Street, the hotel was squarely in the path of the expanding Financial District at a time when the zone just east of Chinatown was being eyed by major investors. Hundreds of young activists flocked to the cause when residents of the I-Hotel received eviction notices in 1968 from Democratic Party financier and major San Francisco real estate mogul Walter Shorenstein (president of the Milton Meyer Company, which had purchased the property with plans to build a parking garage). Demonstrations, lawsuits, and ongoing public campaigning held off the eviction for years. A negotiated truce with Shorenstein was abandoned the day after a mysterious fire killed three tenants and gutted the third floor, but the movement kept the eviction at bay. By 1974, a Thai businessman using his Four Seas Investment Corporation bought the building and the eviction was again put in motion. Demonstrations, appeals, and preparations to resist the eviction enjoyed widespread support from many different activists and communities, including Mayor George Moscone in 1976 and Sheriff Richard Hongisto (who went so far as to spend five days in county jail for contempt of court for his refusal to evict the tenants). But on 4 August 1977, the eviction was carried out in the predawn hours by hundreds of policemen and sheriffs climbing fire department ladders while police on horseback attacked thousands of protesters ringing the building’s sidewalks. The I-Hotel was a bitter loss for the many activists who dedicated so many years to its defense.

Affordable housing advocates protest planned luxury condos in the Mission in 2007. Photograph by Brooke Anderson.


Community Housing Movement and Rent Control: During the 1970s battles against the Redevelopment Agency and to save the I-Hotel, housing and community development corporations were launched in the Mission and South of Market. These corporations were dedicated to building affordable housing on a nonprofit model. Meanwhile, others organized for tenants’ rights and rent control measures. Calvin Welch has argued that “the existence of the community housing movement by 1977 would so influence the district-elected Board of Supervisors that in 1979 they passed San Francisco’s Rent Stabilization and Arbitration ordinance, which by 2008 covered some 170,000 rental units.”² Key to the success of San Francisco’s rent control since the first incarnation was passed in 1979 by legislative vote was the repeated popular initiatives passed to bolster it and strengthen its financial controls. Joined in the following years by community housing development efforts in the Haight-Ashbury, Chinatown, the Tenderloin, Bernal Heights, Bayview-Hunter’s Point, and the Western Addition, by 2008 these nonprofit agencies had developed nearly 26,000 permanently affordable housing units, mainly for families and seniors earning less than 50 percent of the median income in the city.

Tenderloin Fights Against Tourist Hotels: In the late 1970s and through the 1980s, activists sponsored by Quakers, Franciscans, Methodists, along with a newly formed North of Market Planning Coalition and others organized a neighborhood campaign to save affordable housing in the residential hotels of the Tenderloin. The forty-block area covers the lower slopes south of Nob Hill to Market Street, between the shopping district around Union Square on its east and the Civic Center on its west. Since the early twentieth century, the Tenderloin has been a haven for outcasts, seniors, the poor, and people in trouble who mostly live in single-room occupancy residential hotels. In the late 1970s, a shift in San Francisco’s economy from manufacturing and global trade to tourism led many hotel owners to move long-term tenants out in favor of the much more lucrative tourist trade. When major hotel chains announced plans for massive hotels at the eastern edge of the neighborhood in 1980, a successful grassroots campaign gained major financial concessions from the big hotel companies and developed anti-gentrification zoning plans. Some of that money was channeled into nonprofit purchases of key properties throughout the neighborhood so that today, one-third of the housing in the Tenderloin is owned by nonprofit housing operations. Throughout the 1980s, the Tenderloin’s composition changed, with an influx of Southeast Asian refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, who joined efforts to halt plans to shift the neighborhood toward the expensive tourist trade and to gentrify its elegant early-twentieth-century apartment stock.

The People’s Plan, focused around a large three-dimensional map of the Mission and dozens of graphic posters, is a community-based planning process to envision and create a sustainable and healthy neighborhood. Courtesy of the San Francisco Print Collective.


The High-Rise Revolt: A high-rise revolt that had begun in the 1970s culminated in the 1980s with the passage of Proposition M, a long-sought growth limitation ordinance. In 1970, the US Steel Corporation, then the largest single corporation in the world, proposed to build a 550-foot high-rise on the waterfront a short distance north of the Bay Bridge. This set off a storm of protest that led to what came to be called the “High-Rise Revolt.” Although in November 1971, voters defeated a measure to limit heights on buildings, subsequent efforts of activist Alvin Duskin, San Francisco Bay Guardian publisher Bruce Brugmann, and others seeking to limit development (or as some put it, to “stop Manhattanization”) led to a series of elections that culminated in 1986 with the passage of Proposition M. Touted widely as a growth-control initiative, the terms of Prop M were more nuanced. The measure halted unregulated downtown growth, except across Market Street to the south. It established an annual limit on the square footage of office space that could be built each year, along with a “beauty contest” for proposed new buildings. Prop M also provided for neighborhood zoning to limit commercial developments through a local planning process. An unintended outcome of the High-Rise Revolt is the edge-to-edge suburban office park architecture of Mission Bay. San Francisco’s latest “city within the city” neighborhood, Mission Bay has been built over former railyards and warehouses that in turn were built on long-ago filled-in bay lands. Mission Bay master plans called for achieving maximum floor space while maintaining relatively restrictive height limitations.

San Francisco Tenants Union Convention: In the early 1990s, the San Francisco Tenants Union recommitted itself to grassroots organizing, following a dismal experience with Mayor Art Agnos and a general retreat from organizing during his term from 1987 to 1991. Activists at a citywide tenants convention in 1992 reframed their initiatives in terms of general economic fairness rather than a narrow focus on landlord-renter relations. In 1992, just a year after losing a contentious effort to impose rent control on vacant units, a new proposition was passed by popular vote that lowered allowable annual rent increases from their prevailing 4 percent to 60 percent of inflation, which has worked out to under 2 percent under prevailing rates of inflation. In the years that followed, rent-controlled apartments were limited to increases of 1.3, 1.1, and 1 percent, which amounted to what Randy Shaw, executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, has called “a multimillion-dollar transfer of wealth from landlords to tenants.”³

Aftermath of the Dot-Com Boom: During the 1990s, a largely ignored crescendo of displacements led to approximately 90,000 evictions; many clustered in the final years of the decade during the dot-com boom. By the time of the dot-com bust in 2001, the political climate had shifted. Activist organizations like the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition (MAC included diverse organizational members such as Mission Agenda, the Mission Housing and Development Corporation, PODER, St. Peter’s Housing Committee, Latino Day Laborer Program, and others) and the South of Market Anti-Displacement Coalition (SOMAD) had poured organizational efforts into blocking the city Planning Department from becoming a rubber-stamp “Facilitation Department” for every proposal that came before it under Mayor Willie Brown. In 2000, district elections were reestablished in the city, and the first wave of elected supervisors represented a clear majority rebuke to Mayor Brown’s pro-development agenda.4

MAC activists were pulled into a years-long process of planning the rezoning of the city’s eastern neighborhoods. Repeatedly frustrated by the ad hoc nature of contesting one proposal after another, activists engaged in a long-term effort to reorganize land-use priorities as reflected in basic zoning documents. By the time they completed the new planning documents, the grassroots energy that had buoyed the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition had dissipated. Similarly, activists in other neighborhoods were drawn into a more bureaucratic relationship with city agencies, planners, and politicians, and the grassroots independence that had fueled electoral and social revolts passed.


1 “‘All Those Who Care About The Mission, Stand Up With Me!’: Latino Community Formation and the MCO,” Ten Years That Shook the City: San Francisco 1968-78, Chris Carlsson, ed. (City Lights Foundation: 2011).

2 “The Fight to Stay: The Creation of the Community Housing Movement in San Francisco, 1968-78,” Ten Years That Shook the City: San Francisco 1968-78, Chris Carlsson, ed. (City Lights Foundation: 2011).

3 “Tenant Power in San Francisco,” Reclaiming San Francisco: History Politics Culture, James Brook, Chris Carlsson, Nancy J. Peters, eds. (City Lights Books: 1998).

4 This story deserves much more explanation than can be provided here. Good sources are two articles in The Political Edge, Chris Carlsson, ed. (City Lights Foundation: 2004), “A Decade of Displacement: San Francisco’s Hidden Housing History” by James Tracy, and “McFrisco” by Quintin Mecke. A longer treatment can be found in Karl Beitel’s Local Protest, Global Movements: Capital, Community, and State in San Francisco (Philadephia, Temple University Press: 2013).


Bajalta California

by Michael Dear

From Boom Spring 2014, Vol. 4, No. 1

The border that divides brings us together.

The United States–Mexico borderlands are among the most misunderstood places on Earth. The communities along the line are far distant from the centers of political power in the nations’ capitals. They are staunchly independent and composed of many cultures with hybrid loyalties. Historically, since the borderline was drawn between the two countries, Texas border counties have been among the poorest regions in both countries. Those in New Mexico and Arizona were sparsely populated agricultural and mining districts; and in the more affluent west, Baja California was always more closely connected to California than to Mexico. Nowadays, border states are among the fastest-growing regions in both countries. They are places of economic dynamism, teeming contradiction, and vibrant political and cultural change.

Mutual interdependence has always been the hallmark of cross-border lives. After the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo settled the Mexican-American War, a series of binational “twin towns” sprang up along the line, developing identities that are sufficiently distinct as to warrant the collective title of a “third nation,” snugly slotted in the space between the two host countries. At the western-most edge of this third nation is the place I call “Bajalta California.”¹

The international boundary does not divide the third nation but instead acts as a connective membrane uniting it. This way of seeing the borderlands runs counter to received wisdom, which regards the border as the last line of national defense against unfettered immigration, rapacious drug cartels, and runaway global terrorism. It is a viewpoint that substitutes continuity and coexistence in place of sovereignty and difference.

In 2002, I began traveling the entire length of the US-Mexico border, on both sides, from Tijuana/San Diego on the Pacific Ocean, to Matamoros/Brownsville on the Gulf of Mexico, a total of 4,000 miles. I voyaged in the footsteps of giants. Sixteenth-century Spanish explorers Cabeza de Vaca and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado came this way. Generals Santa Anna and Zachary Taylor fought important battles for these lands during the Mexican-American War.

US-Mexico Boundary Survey Map, 1853, Tijuana section. Image courtesy of Linea Divisoria Entre Mexico Y Los Estados Unidos, Colección Límites México-EEUU, Carpeta No. 4, Lámina No. 54; Autor: José Salazar Ilárregui, Año 1853. Mapoteca ‘Manuel Orozco y Berra’, Servicio de Información Estadistica Agroalimentaria y Pesquera, SARGAPA. Digital restoration by Tyson Gaskill.

What began as an impulsive journey of discovery was rapidly overtaken by events. I had the good (and bad) fortune to begin before the United States undertook the fortification of its southern boundary, and so I became an unintentional witness to the border’s closure, an experience that altered my understanding of the two countries. My experiences of the in-between third nation provide a powerful rejoinder to those who would relegate the borderlands to the status of surrogate battlefield against migrants, narcotraficantes, and terrorists.

In his 1787 biography of Fray Junípero Serra, Francisco Palóu included a map of the first administrative division of Baja and Alta California, indicating the Spanish allocation of mission territories between Franciscans to the north and the Dominicans to the south. That border was recognized on 2 February 1848, when a “Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits, and Settlement” was signed at Guadalupe Hidalgo, thereby terminating the Mexican-American War, which had begun in 1846 and was regarded by many (including Ulysses S. Grant) as a dishonorable action on the part of the United States. Article V of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (as it came to be called) required the designation of a “boundary line with due precision, upon authoritative maps, and to establish upon the ground landmarks which shall show the limits of both republics.” The line would extend from the mouth of the deepest channel of the Rio Grande (known in Mexico as the Río Bravo del Norte); up river to “the town called Paso” (present-day El Paso/Ciudad Juárez); from thence overland to the Gila River, and down the channel of the Colorado River; after which it would follow the administrative division between Upper (Alta) California and Lower (Baja) California to the Pacific Ocean.²

Ancient boundary monument No. XVI was a simple pile of stones, early 1850s. From Jacobo Blanco’s Memoria de la Sección Mexicana de la Comisión Internacional de Límites entre México y los Estados Unidos que Restableció los Monumentos de El Paso al Pacífico. 1901.


In a multivolume history of the American West, historian Carl Wheat refers disparagingly to the post-war boundary survey as the stuff that “dime novels” are made of. To justify this characterization, he invokes yarns about political intrigue, deaths from starvation and yellow fever, struggles for survival in the desert, and the constant threat of violent attacks by Indians and filibusters. He also complained that the US field surveys seem to have been plagued by acrimony and personal vendetta: “if ever a mapping enterprise in the American West was cursed by politics, interdepartmental rivalries, and personal jealousies, it was the Mexican Boundary Survey.”³

It’s true that the letters, diaries, and official memoranda by individuals on the US team portray just about every American participant as a scoundrel or self-promoter. Yet to me the boundary survey is a story of heroism, skill, and endurance of epic proportions. It might lack the glamour of war, or the grandeur of Lewis and Clark’s opening of the lands west of the Mississippi in the early 1800s, but the survey is one of the greatest episodes in US and Mexican geopolitical history. It remains deeply etched in the everyday lives of both nations. Dime novel it most certainly is not; it is more a narrative of nation-building centered in American President James K. Polk’s vision of territorial hegemony extending as far as the Pacific Ocean, with all its momentous consequences.


This marble monument marks the first point established by the boundary survey following the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In the late nineteenth century the original marble monument was renovated and fenced to prevent vandalism. From Jacobo Blanco’s Vistas de los Monumentos a lo Largo de la Línea Divisoria entre México y los Estados Unidos de El Paso al Pacífico. 1901.


1 The toponym is my amalgam of the territorial names adopted by the Spanish colonialists for Baja (Lower) and Alta (Upper) California. Parts of this essay are adapted from Michael Dear, Why Walls Won’t Work: Repairing the US-Mexico Divide (Oxford University Press, 2013), where more complete citations may be found.

2 Richard Griswold del Castillo, The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: A Legacy of Conflict (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990), 187–188.

3 Carl I. Wheat, Mapping the Transmississippi West, 1540–1861. vol. 3, From the Mexican War to the Boundary Surveys, 1846–1854 (San Francisco: Institute of Historical Cartography, 1959), 208–209.


My Father’s Charreria, My Rodeo

by Romeo Guzmán

From Boom Spring 2014, Vol. 4, No. 1

A paisa journey.

Ramón Ayala and Los Bravos del Norte opened their set at Arena nightclub in Hollywood with “Que me lleve el diablo” on that night in 2004.¹ As the heartwrenching lyrics and Ayala’s melodic accordion reached every corner of the club, Adrián Félix, at the time my roommate at UCLA, motioned with his eyebrows and index finger to two young women sitting at a table across the dance floor. Before we had even asked them to dance, sweat accumulated on my palms and a pool of moisture formed in my lower back. I knew how to dance about as well as many newly arrived Mexican immigrants are able to speak English. Instead of striking a beautiful balance of smooth, graceful, and intentional movement, I awkwardly jerked my partner forward, back, and to the side, occasionally bumping into other dancers. To make matters worse, the boots I borrowed from Adrián were one size too large. The double socks that I wore to rectify the situation only added to my tenuous footing. My pants for the night, also his, were the tightest I had ever worn, and the black Stetson hat and long-sleeve button-down shirt were just a little too big. The only thing that was mine, by way of my father, was a shiny nickel and brass belt buckle.

My first attempt to crossover into the regional Mexican music scene was about a decade before my days at UCLA. I grew up in Pomona, California, a predominately working-class neighborhood composed of African Americans and migrants from Mexico, Central America, the Philippines, Cambodia, and Vietnam. At school I played soccer on the playground, after school in the streets and our backyard, and on Sundays on worn, hole-filled soccer fields. I hung out with children of Mexican migrants like me, who mainly spoke Spanish as well as those who preferred to speak English like I did. At home, I listened to my older brother’s music: Green Day, Nirvana, and Stone Temple Pilots, as well as classic bands like The Velvet Underground. It wasn’t until I entered junior high, in the early 1990s, that I actively sought out music and dances.

Like many second-generation Mexicans in Southern California at the time, I fell into banda music’s raucous embrace. Futboleros, rockeros, Morrissey aficionados, and even rappers like Akwid, donned paisa outfits and attended bailes.² Both young men and women wore tight pants, cowboy boots, cintos piteados, and leather vests adorned with regional hometown or home state identification as well as paisa imagery—a cockfight, bull riders, horses. Usually silk crema de seda shirts, often intricate Versace knock-offs that incorporated paisa designs, were worn solely by young men. To complete the outfit, young people hung a correa, a miniature leather horsewhip, from their belt loops. Lacking money from a part-time job, I used all of my available resources to put together a passable outfit. In my father’s closet, I found solid-colored silk shirts and more stylized ones that clearly dated themselves to the 1980s, though they lacked paisa motifs. Aside from being made of silk, they had very little in common with the crema de seda shirts. From the corner of my father’s sock and underwear drawer, I dug out a shiny belt buckle featuring a man astride a bucking bull. I was out of luck in the shoe department: my normally cool-looking Adidas Sambas stuck out pretty badly on the dance floor. I attended a few backyard parties and quinceañeras, but ultimately felt too awkward in my pseudo-paisa outfits. In high school, I continued to listen to Banda El Recodo, Banda El Limon, and the norteño band Los Tigres del Norte, but at dances sported soccer jerseys and T-shirts, always with the classic black-and-white Adidas Sambas.

In both of these two periods and outfits, however, my father’s belt buckle remained at the center of my clumsy and piecemeal efforts to enter the Los Angeles banda and norteño scenes. My father told me it was a gift. A friend had given it to him after he rode his first bull. But that was about all I knew. For many years, I imagined him learning to ride bulls on a small ranch in Jalisco or in La Ceja, Zacatecas, where he grew up, under the mentorship of a wise old viejito, a charro guru. Maybe I, as his son, with the belt buckle as my center of gravity, could conquer dancing, and through this movement claim for myself a direct connection to the Mexican countryside and thus Mexicaness.

In 2007, as I prepared to leave California for graduate school, I asked my father more about the belt buckle. I was surprised to find out that he learned to ride bulls in Santa Barbara in the 1980s. A white man named Tom taught him. Tom, as a gesture of friendship, gave him the belt buckle after he rode his first bull. The buckle, like Tom, is American. I placed the belt buckle in my suitcase and didn’t think much more about its history.

When my father passed away on 13 August 2013, the buckle became the most significant object linking me to my father, to his past. I was consumed with a desire to know more about it and my father. I pored over photo albums in the garage, watched American rodeo competitions on television, asked my mother about my father’s bull-riding days, and read about American rodeos and charrería. I came to appreciate that the belt buckle’s narrative, including my own imagined one, is a quintessentially migrant, Mexican, and Californian story. Let us start at the beginning: before the United States–Mexico border was erected, before the rise of the US and Mexican nation-states.

Nicholas Guzmán, shown here in his blue goalie’s jersey, with his soccer team.

Rodeo’s roots go back to the Spanish conquest. Scholars aptly describe the conquest as an encounter between two distinct civilizations, noting the arrival of new diseases, technology, and animals to the Americas. John Lockhart, Caterina Pizzigoni, and other historians document the movement of ideas and practices between Spaniards and indigenous populations.³

They highlight the transformation of language, the changing layout of indigenous homes, and perhaps most emblematically, the forging of a new Catholicism. These new practices, of course, took place within a strict racial hierarchy and rigid monitoring of social practices, where Spanish priests often prohibited indigenous populations from practicing their own religion.

The collective practices known as charrería, notes Mary Lou Compte, are a product of this complicated and nuanced dynamic, with the fiesta as its main source. Colonial society celebrated “anniversaries of saints, local traditions, pagan gods, special fairs and markets, and patriotic holidays” by dancing, listening to music, gambling, drinking, engaging in sport, praying, and attending mass.4

In the sixteenth century, sporting activities included fighting on horseback with lances as well as grabbing bulls by the tail and throwing them to the ground.5

The growth of ranching during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries contributed to the evolution of charreria. As rules prohibiting non-Spaniards from riding horses eased up and more and more indigenous and mestizos began working on haciendas, a “uniquely Mexican sport” emerged: charreada or charrería, events that showcased the skills of charros, the horsemen.6

Nicholas Guzmán riding a bull, date unknown.

Nueva España, a colony of Spain, extended well into the present day US Southwest, with ranching reaching California by the mid-eighteenth century. As late as the 1860s, the culture of the charros maintained a strong presence throughout California. In Santa Barbara, the pastoral economy connected classes and helped create community identity and cohesion, argues historian Albert Camarillo.7

The Mexican-American War of 1848, dubbed La invasión norteamericana by Mexicans, brought many changes, among them an influx of white Americans. As Mexicans and white Americans worked together on cattle ranches, the latter adopted many of the skills and techniques of Mexican charros or vaqueros. It was during this period that white Americans began to host events that “featured most of the very same contests that continued to be part of the traditional Hispanic celebrations,” writes Compte, “including bull fights, bull riding, corer al gallo, sortijas, picking up objects, steer roping, team roping, and bronc riding.”8

The American cowboy was on the horizon, but the charro was still the main man in the arena.

From 1883 to 1916, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows toured throughout the United States and presented Americans with a romantic and gloried image of the American cowboy. At the same time that the cowboy became ingrained in the American imagination, the political, social, and economic decline of the Mexican community in Santa Barbara was solidified. During the 1860s and 1870s, the local pastoral economy slowly lost out to the capitalist economy, which produced new jobs in tourisms, construction, and commercial agriculture. By the 1890s it was not uncommon to find entire Mexican families working in fruit canneries, in the almond industry, and harvesting walnuts. Along with these changes came a loss of political power and the creation of Mexican barrios. By the end of the century, 90 percent of the Mexican population lived in a seven-block radius between Vine and State Street, known as Pueblo Viejo. These changes, writes Camarillo, established the social, political, and economic conditions of the twentieth century. With the onset of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, and especially World War I, newly arrived Mexicans entered a segmented labor system and helped form a second barrio on the lower eastside, between Milpas, Ortega, and State Street.9

As the Santa Barbara that we would recognize today took form, the American rodeo moved away from its Mexican past and into the realm of sport. In 1922, the first World’s Championship Cowboy Contest took place at Madison Square Garden in New York. By 1936, practices now associated with rodeo were organized into a single sport and, according to Compte “promoted the myth that their sport came directly from informal contests among Anglo cowboys, ignoring the Hispanic influence along with the theatrical.”10

South of the US-Mexico border a similar consolidation took place. After the Mexican Revolution, there was an effort by the state, intellectuals, and citizens to define Mexico’s past and present as well as to make Indians, peasants, and other corporate groups into “good Mexican citizens.”11

In 1933, the same year as the founding of the Federación Mexicana de Charros, President Abelardo L. Rodríguez declared charrería Mexico’s national sport.12

As the century progressed, the image of the American cowboy and Mexican charro grew in strength while they grew apart, ensuring the divorce of American rodeo from its Mexican influence and past. By the 1990s, when I was in high school, Clint Eastwood was an all-American cowboy and Vicente Fernandez was Mexico’s favorite charro—and they had next to nothing in common in my mind.

Nicolás Guzmán was born on a small ranch called Los Pozitos in La Ceja, García de la Cadena, Zacatecas, in 1958. He was the third child of José María Guzmán Castañeda and María Arellano Prieto de Guzmán. The family worked a small plot of land and subsisted by planting corn, beans, and other vegetables. Like many other Zacatecano families, they migrated south, to the developing state of Jalisco.

The Guzmán family in 1982 with Nicholas wearing the belt buckle.

In 1966 José María, his wife María, and their three children Santos, Manuel, and Nicolás settled in the Colonia Santa Margarita, a poor working-class neighborhood near the city of Guadalajara. During this time, José María supported his expanding family by working in the United States for a few months at a time. My grandmother recalls that he first migrated in 1958, as a contracted bracero. Like other men, he overstayed his contract and found other work. But even with the dollars he sent south, his family struggled economically. Led by Manuel, the oldest son, they did their best to scrap together a living. Manuel sold insurance; the younger boys sold gum on city buses and shined shoes just outside of Guadalajara’s Cathedral. María took in other people’s laundry and, along with the girls, maintained a tidy home.

These were challenging times for the family, but the boys, my uncles, have fond memories of their youth. There was little that Manuel, Nicolás, and the two younger brothers, Lupe and Ismael, loved more that playing and watching soccer. They cheered for America, a Mexican national club team from Mexico City, and the bitter rivals of Guadalajara’s Chivas. Indeed, their love for the game has transcended time and space, and imparted the new generation with a poetic appreciation of the game and some skills to play it. In our most-recent small-sided game, Maylo (short for Ismael) told us why my father decided to become a goalie. During a hard-fought match at Estadio Jalisco, America’s goalie Prudencio Cortes made numerous saves, including a set of three consecutive shots on goal from close range. Nicolas was hooked.

His first goalie jersey was an American high school letterman sweater that his father bought at a second hand store in the United States. The goals he defended were all on hard dirt fields with rocks scattered throughout the pitch. At only 5 feet, 7 inches and 130 pounds, Nicolás was not the strongest nor most athletic youngster. Luckily, in the goal, measuring and calculating one’s position is as important as one’s athletic ability. The difference between a save and a goal is often contingent on shuffling one’s feet no more than a foot or two before the opposing player takes a shot and then, of course, the actual dive. By diving at a slight forward angle the goalie can meet the ball early on in its trajectory, cutting it off before it moves farther and farther away from one’s body and hands. My father imparted these insights to me during drills and penalty kicks in our backyard, directly in front of a makeshift soccer goal that we constructed using white PVC pipes. By his own admission he never mastered diving at a slight forward angle. Yet the careful observation and meticulous calculations required of a goalie fit well with Nicolás’s appreciation of math and his often neurotic tendencies. Untied shoelaces, unmade beds, and carelessly scattered toys troubled his sense of, and need for, order. I suspect this is why he enjoyed the responsibility of being the last man and having a type of horizontal bird’s eye perspective of the field. From the goal, one can see all the offensive plays develop and more importantly, can yell out instructions to one’s fellow players. And of course, he also enjoyed the acrobatics of being goalie. He loved that whether he was diving up to block a shot near the top of the cross bar or down to the ground, he had to consistently fight and defy gravity, all while ensuring a safe and soft landing.

At home in Pomona many years later, Nicholas Guzmán wearing the belt buckle.

During the week, Nicolás spent his days and evenings working at Música Lemus, a record store in downtown, Guadalajara. This provided him access to all the latest music and a future playlist for his car, truck, and home stereo: English giants like the Beatles, French divas like Francoise Hardy, the international and trilingual star Jannette, Dan Fogelberg, Don McLean, John Denver, and others. Nicolás did not know French or English, but this did not matter; like others of his generation, he sang along, making up the meaning of each word, refrain, and chorus. His pants, like his hair were long, flowing out at their ends.

This modern urban sensibility was coupled with a romantic idealism for the countryside. From his childhood, Nicolás retained memories of large open spaces and a rugged simplicity. These visions of Zacatecas were layered with portraits of the American West from films, particularly those of his favorite cowboy, Clint Eastwood, whom he preferred over John Wayne. Nicolás didn’t buy Wayne’s portrayal of cowboy life, finding it inauthentic and Wayne himself a few pounds too heavy to be a “real cowboy.” In both the American West and rural Mexico, Nicolás found simplicity, dignity, and directness. One of his most common expressions, often evoked as a demand for clarity, was “vamos al grano.” The English translation for grano is grain or bean, and the expression vamos al grano is understood to mean “let’s get to the point,” or “let’s get to root of it.”

Romeo Guzmán in 2013.

In the summer of 1977, Nicolás met Francisca. She was born and raised in Guadalajara, but had moved to Mexicali and then later to South El Monte in the San Gabriel Valley near Los Angeles, where she completed the last two years of high school. That summer, she, along with her siblings, lived in the Colonia Santa Margarita, just a few blocks from the Guzmán household. After only two weeks of going out and very much al grano, Nicolás confessed to Francisca that he wanted to marry her. After that summer, they sent dozens of postcards and letters and visited each other in Guadalajara and South El Monte as often as possible. A year later, they got married in Guadalajara and a year after that migrated to Los Angeles.

Desperate for work and without much luck in Los Angeles, Nicolás reached out to his father. At the time, José María was working for a landscaping company in Santa Barbara pruning trees and living near Milpas Street, in the historic Mexican barrio of Santa Barbara. José María found Nicolás a job working as a field hand on a ranch in Montecito, a wealthy city near Santa Barbara. Nicolás worked alongside several white Americans, including Tom. It was with these white American men and not a Mexican vaquero that he learned to ride bulls.

The key to a successful ride lies in careful attention to detail, split-second decision-making, and purposeful and graceful movement as much as strength—much like guarding the goal in soccer. Great bull riders make this all look easy, but the various factors to consider are pretty daunting. Bulls use their speed, power, and movement to throw off a bull rider. They can change direction, buck and kick their legs in numerous directions, and drop the front of their body. To stay on, bull riders use their inner thigh muscles and legs to embrace the body of the bull, move their groin and upper body in response to the bull’s movement, and try to maintain a center of gravity. Hitting the ground, of course, is inevitable for every bull rider. As the cowboy saying goes, “There was never a horse that couldn’t be rode; there never was a man that couldn’t be throwed.”13

Tom taught Nick, as they affectionately called him, the basics on small bulls in the open range and gave him the belt buckle after he successfully rode his first bull. Nick wore it to formal and informal bull-riding events throughout Santa Barbara County. On one occasion, with José María in the audience, he successfully rode a bull for eight seconds, scoring the highest points and taking home a small pot of money. Nick rode bulls from 1979 to 1981, leaving bull riding when he took his wife and three children, including me, back to Guadalajara.

Although he never returned to bull riding, the belt buckle remained a mainstay in his wardrobe. He wore it with regular T-shirts, polo shirts, and long-sleeve dress shirts. For Nicolás, the buckle was a point of pride, as it is for many rodeo riders. The history of rodeo buckles is relatively recent, and tied to the recent history of rodeo. In the late nineteenth century, cowboys wore suspenders instead of belts. With the rise of organized rodeo competitions, belt buckles were awarded as trophies. As the twentieth century progressed, it became easier to mass-produce belt buckles, increasing their popularity and use.14

Today, buckles continue to be awarded as prizes at rodeo competitions and worn inside and outside of formal events.

Approximately 2 inches in circumference and made of nickel giving it some heft, my father’s belt buckle has at its center, in brass relief, a man on top of a bucking bull, the man’s right hand waving in the air. It can pass for Mexican, but more because of the great diversity of Mexican belt buckles than for its own intrinsic qualities. Mexican belts and buckles vary in size, material, and imagery. One of the most common belts is the cinto piteado. Pita, a fiber found in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, is stitched into leather to form floral, charrería, prehispanic patterns and imagery, and individuals’ initials and hometown. This artisanal practice has its roots in Spanish leather handcraft, with noticeable Arab influences. Interestingly, the mecca for cintos piteados is Colotlán, a small town at the northern tip of the state of Jalisco.15

Due the state of Jalisco’s strange configuration, Colotlán, is 75 miles north of my father’s birthplace, García de la Cadena, Zacatecas, and about 125 miles north of the city of his youth, Guadalajara. In addition to the cinto piteado, there are large, oval, buckles, made from a variety of metals and sometimes the horn of a bull.

The narrative I have now constructed about the origins of my father’s belt buckle, particularly where and how he learned to ride bulls, fits well within what we know about Mexican migrants and migration. Yet, Nicolás’s story also illustrates how much the lines between rural and urban and Mexican and American blur into and layer on top of each other. More importantly, my father and I, just like other migrants and children of migrants of our respective generations, used available resources—like the rodeo buckle—to connect with Mexico and identify as Mexican. I believe that bull riding was an expression of both my father’s romantic and idealist vision of American cowboy culture and his place of birth, La Ceja, Zacatecas. His vision of both these places was mediated through his experience as a young man in the urban city of Guadalajara. Some of the skills that bull riding required were fostered in the goal on dirt soccer fields. That he learned to ride a bull from a white American, speaks to the movement of people, popular culture, and everyday practices across the US-Mexico border. The belt buckle contains and represents this complex and nuanced narrative. This is why my father cherished it so much and why it has served me as a type of amulet. It came with me when I left California to attend Columbia University, in New York City, for doctoral studies in History. I wore it to my first graduate seminar, to the first lecture I gave on migration, and to my discussion sections with undergraduates. And, I wear it now, as I sit in a Mexico City coffee shop, writing out its history.


All images courtesy of Romeo Guzmán.

1 The literal translation is “may the devil take me.”

2 Josh Kun, “California Sueños,” Boom: A Journal of California 1 (Spring 2011): no 1, 62.

3 James Lockhart, The Nahuas After the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth Through Eighteenth Century (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994). Caterina Pizzigoni. The Life Within: Local Indigenous Society in Mexico’s Toluca Valley, 1650–1800. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013).

4 Mary Lou LeCompte, “The Hispanic Influence on the History of Rodeo, 1823–1922,” Journal of Sport History 12 (Spring 1985): no.1, 22.

5 Compte. “The Hispanic Influence.”

6 Compte. “The Hispanic Influence.”

7 Albert Camarillo, Chicanos in a Changing Society: From Mexican Pueblos to American Barrios in Santa Barbara and Southern California, 1848–1930 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979).

8 Compte, “The Hispanic Influence,” 33.

9 Camarillo, Chicanos in a Changing Society.

10 Compte, “The Hispanic Influence,” 21.

11 For an introduction to Mexican nation-building after the revolution, see Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniel Nugent, eds., Everyday Forms of State Formation (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994) and Mary Kay Vaughan, and Stephen E. Lewis, eds., The Eagle and the Virgin (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006). For case studies, see Christopher Boyer, Becoming Campesinos: Politics, Identity, and Agrarian Struggle in Postrevolutionary Michoacán (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003) and Alexander Dawson, Indian and the Nation in Revolutionary Mexico (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004).

12 See Autry Museum’s online text for the exhibit “Art of the Charreria: A Mexican Tradition,” http://theautry.org/explore/exhibits/charreria.html.

13 Quoted in Mody C. Boatright, “The American Rodeo,” American Quarterly 16 (Summer 1964): no. 2, part 1, 195–202.

14 Lauren Halley, “A Short History of Cowboy Buckles,” American Cowboy, http://www.americancowboy.com/gear/short-history-cowboy-buckles.

15 See Autry Museum’s online text for the exhibit “Art of the Charreria: A Mexican Tradition,” http://theautry.org/explore/exhibits/charreria.html.


Radio Free China

by Bill Lascher

From Boom Spring 2014, Vol. 4, No. 1

When a sleepy California beach town was at the center of a war across the Pacific

The newsmen ignored the Japanese bombs shaking seventy-five feet of rock above their heads. It was June 1940, and a team of Chinese and Western broadcasters continued their reports from a tunnel beneath Chongqing, China’s wartime capital, the “world’s most bombed city.”

Seven thousand miles away, in Ventura, a dentist woke early to listen to their broadcast. As he did every morning, beginning precisely at 5:53 a.m., Dr. Charles Stuart spent two hours carefully monitoring recording levels as acetate discs recorded the broadcast from XGOY, the Chinese government’s radio station. Next to him, wearing dental assistant whites and huge headphones pressed to her ears, Stuart’s secretary—and wife—Alacia Held, transcribed every word. Finally, a familiar farewell closed another day’s broadcasts.

“XGOY is signing off now,” declared Melville Jacoby, a twenty-three-year-old freelance journalist hired to compile and read the station’s broadcasts. “This is the Voice of China, the Chinese international broadcasting station, Szechuan, China. Good morning America and goodnight China.”

Seven decades later, I’ve spent years chasing every clue I can about Mel’s life as a correspondent in wartime China. A cousin of my grandmother’s, Mel grew up in one of Los Angeles’s first Jewish families, and I wanted to know more than the family legend about the cousin who became Time‘s Far East bureau chief and fell in love amid the Chongqing air raids.

On a summer afternoon in a park in Portland, Oregon, 211 pages into Peter Rand’s China Hands, I saw Mel’s name. I’d known about his broadcasting work for the Chinese. What I didn’t know was a detail Rand pointed out. Mel’s broadcasts from XGOY were “picked up in Ventura, California, by a ham radio operator, a dentist named Dr. Charles Stuart.”

I was floored. Not only was Mel in this book, but his work, I learned, depended on a dentist in my own hometown. Ventura. The sleepy seaside town I’d been so quick to escape was one of China’s only links to the outside world during the war.

Without Doc Stuart’s radio towers on the California coast, his dedication and technical mastery, China may have been completely isolated from the outside world.¹ So crucial was his work to the Republic of China’s war effort that it awarded him its highest civilian honor, the “Special Collar of the order of the Brilliant Star.” At the time, he was the only foreigner to receive the award.²

But who was this dentist?

Born in Santa Paula, a rural Ventura County town, Stuart received one of the country’s first shortwave amateur radio licenses when he was only thirteen, but he had to shut down his operation when the United States entered World War I. He attended the University of Southern California, where he studied dentistry. Then in 1932, he got back into shortwave and registered W6GRL, the call sign he’d use for the next two decades.

Before the second Sino-Japanese war broke out on the other side of the Pacific and Stuart was hired to work for XGOY, he had won numerous international shortwave competitions. Stuart said he had contacted people in Russian-held Franz Josef Land, the Chagos Archipelago, and Antarctica, among many other remote locales. Once, he claimed, he even reached Howard Hughes’s Lockheed 14 Lodestar as it passed over Siberia during Hughes’s 1938 flight around the world.

Stuart was not a man who did things by halves. He was as passionate about dentistry as he was about shortwave radio and China. When he finally visited China after the war, he was nervous about leaving his patients behind and asked friends who were also dentists to see them. For the rest of his life—he died in 1981—he traveled the world to teach others about dentistry. When he got home, his granddaughter once recalled in a conversation with me, the first question he had for his grandchildren was how their teeth were doing.

Stuart’s dental clinic was on the second floor of El Jardin, a Spanish-style courtyard plaza in downtown Ventura, one of Southern California’s first outdoor shopping centers. Growing up in Ventura, I knew “El Jardin” as an outdoor mall of salons, bead stores, and art galleries. But in 1940, El Jardin became the first place where Stuart and his wife began receiving, recording, and transcribing broadcasts from Chongqing to relay to Chinese News Service offices in San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, and New York. They soon moved the operation to their beachside home.

The major networks, with their expensive equipment and technicians, had struggled for years to bring in XGOY. But finally, as Harrison Forman wrote for Collier’s in 1944, major US networks “admitted they’d never met a better man and ran their lines into Doctor Stuart’s little attic. Now every word and note that America hears from Chungking is funneled through that attic.”3

Newspapers across the country covered Stuart’s efforts throughout the war. NBC itself lauded him in a 1945 broadcast.4 When General Douglas MacArthur radioed Japan’s emperor for surrender terms, he sent a copy of the message through Stuart to make sure it reached appropriate parties.5 Stuart even received Chinese honors reserved for dignitaries.

Chongqing, China’s wartime capital, was devastated by sustained Japanese bombing. Photograph courtesy of the estate of Melville J. Jacoby.


“He proved to be both technically well-equipped to handle the job and faithful in the performance of a function which he voluntarily took upon himself,” Chinese information minister Hollington Tong later wrote, also noting Alacia’s role in the news operation. “The Stuarts performed a basic and essential service for us throughout six years of war.”

As World War II fades into history, few Americans remember that the conflict actually began four and a half years before Pearl Harbor, when Japanese and Chinese forces exchanged fire at a bridge outside Beijing. Over the next eight years, at least fourteen million Chinese died, and tens of millions of people were displaced by the conflict.6

Even in the 1930s and 1940s, California had strong economic interests in Asia, but Golden State media paid more attention to Hitler’s march across Europe than the conflict raging between Japan and China. Were it not for Doc Stuart, a team of American-born agents hired by the Chinese government to represent their interests in the United States, and a cadre of journalists working from Chongqing, the suffering in China may have been completely ignored by the Western world.

During the war, Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang government operated a complex propaganda and public relations effort aiming for sympathy—not to mention funding and favorable policy—from allies in the United States. The strategy depended on XGOY and its signal reaching the West, but the station had to transmit through Japanese bombs and interference to disseminate official messages to sympathetic editors, philanthropists, and foreign officials. Most American eyes and ears may have been turned to Europe, but people like Hollywood mogul David O. Selznick and Time publisher Henry Luce, who was born to missionary parents in China, were deeply interested in China. They needed XGOY to convey to Americans first-hand reports—albeit propaganda-tinged ones—of the country’s resistance to the Japanese invasion. Long before Pearl Harbor, Luce, Selznick and other allies of the Chinese argued that Japan’s militarism was a threat to Western interests in the Far East.

Aside from its political importance, XGOY became one of the only ways a tight cadre of foreign journalists could reach newspapers, magazines, and radio networks back home. The station transmitted a weekly “mailbag” of messages from Americans in Chongqing that Stuart relayed to their American family members. At one point, XGOY even broadcast the text, punctuation and all, of an entire book—China After Five Years of War—so it could be sent to New York in the middle of the conflict.

But for any of these messages to reach the United States, XGOY needed more than skilled broadcasters in China; it needed a radio expert—preferably one in California—who could locate their faint signal while advising them on how to improve their transmissions.

They needed Doc Stuart.

When Alex Wilson was a kid in Ventura’s seaside Pierpont district during the early 1970s, he and his childhood friends would race to the beach and swap stories about the houses they passed. One favorite concerned the empty Tudor-style home on the corner of Devon Lane and Pierpont Avenue. Now a senior correspondent at Ventura radio station KVTA, Wilson remembers the wild rumors surrounding that house.

“I remember hearing the stories that there was some guy in that house looking for submarines,” Wilson told me when I visited Ventura to see whether anyone remembered Doc Stuart in my hometown.

In search of better reception, Doc Stuart had moved his listening post from El Jardin to Devon Lane not long after the Chinese government hired him. Today, Devon Lane runs through Pierpont, a dense neighborhood of beach homes packed one against the other along narrow lanes, but when Stuart moved there, it was a sparsely populated oceanfront subdivision whose development had been interrupted by the Great Depression. Most of Pierpont’s lots were still empty, and the flat expanses of sand limited signal obstructions, the salty air improved conductivity, and the location was well-suited for Stuart’s unidirectional—or rhombic—antenna. As he bought up neighboring lots, Stuart planted a forest of eight 70-foot receiving towers and one 90-foot tall one, and then strung more than a mile’s worth of wiring between them and the equipment in his house.7

Stuart’s work for the Chinese began in 1940, when the Chinese News Association, a Kuomintang-run press syndicate based in New York, dispatched Earl Leaf to find someone to receive broadcasts from XGOY. At the time, Leaf was “an ex-logger, miner, cowboy, sailor and accountant” who had worked for the United Press and was one of the first Western journalists to meet and interview Mao Zedong. 8 He worked his contacts in California and soon learned that if anyone could help the Chinese, it was Doc Stuart.

It was only through Stuart’s guidance that the Chinese information ministry was able to prevent heavy Japanese interference and the 7,000 mile distance across the Pacific from garbling news broadcasts meant for American audiences.

Before Earl Leaf left Asia he befriended Melville Jacoby. Mel was a Los Angeles native, graduate of Stanford University, and newspaper stringer who had studied abroad in China three years earlier, written his master’s thesis about imbalances in California newspapers’ coverage of Asia compared to Europe, and returned to the Far East to start his journalism career. While Leaf secured Doc Stuart’s efforts in California, Jacoby went to work with Peng Lo Shan (also known as Mike Peng), the overworked program manager at XGOY.

Wary of becoming a propagandist and eager for more journalism experience, Jacoby left XGOY in the summer of 1940, but not before forging tight connections with Peng, Information Minister Tong, and, remotely, Doc Stuart. But when he was in Chongqing, Jacoby, like a million other wartime occupants of the city, endured countless Japanese bombings, some of which were strategically aimed at XGOY’s facilities.

“Our transmitter out in the country, not here, has made a good target,” Jacoby wrote to his worried mother, adding that the Japanese bombs missed even this more vulnerable equipment in the countryside.9 But XGOY’s work was too important to leave so vulnerable. “Now while they think we’re all destroyed we are moving all equipment in a gigantic bomb proof dugout. In the meantime our work will go ahead unmolested. In a month we’ll be back stronger than ever and secure.”

While Jacoby and Peng jury-rigged XGOY’s equipment—at one point they hooked transmitters up to car batteries after bombs damaged the station’s generators—back in Ventura, Stuart regularly scaled his antenna towers to readjust wiring, or told his son, Bud Held, to do so.

“I spent a lot of time climbing poles for Doc Stuart,” Held told me when I tracked him down in Ventura. “They grabbed me whenever I was out of school, or on the weekends.”

Madame Chiang Kai-Shek visited Los Angeles in 1943. Here she is shown before a crowd of 20,000 people on the steps of City Hall. Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.


Doc Stuart’s wife, Alacia, was even more crucial, transcribing upward of 6,000 words a day and then working by Stuart’s side at his dental practice.

“Much credit must be given to my able assistant and secretary, Mrs. Alacia Held, who stays at the typewriter for hours with earphones clamped to her head taking dictation from a source 7,000 miles distant through static and heterodynes, through fading and hash,” Stuart told a United China Relief sponsor.10

By 1941, as war between the United States and Japan neared, the Federal Communication Commission’s Foreign Broadcast Monitoring Service set up its own network of listening posts. Staff at the service’s Portland, Oregon, post could only detect a “negligible” signal from Chungking and turned to Stuart for help. “I note, incidentally, that the Chinese News Service has been getting better reports out of Chungking than we have been able to here,” FBMS Assistant Editor William Carter wrote in a letter to Stuart.11

Working for XGOY, Stuart became an ardent partisan in China’s resistance to Japanese invasion. Stuart didn’t hide his support for the Kuomintang. He was the local chair of United China Relief, an organization set up by Luce and Selznick. When President Roosevelt omitted China from a list of major battlefronts during a speech in 1942, Stuart wrote a pointed letter of complaint to the president.

“Do you realize how great a boon this failure to recognize China’s effort is to our Japanese antagonist,” Stuart wrote, warning that Free China was the lone force preventing what he described as an all-out “racial war” with the United States from erupting in Asia.12

“China’s has been a thankless struggle; a struggle which is without parallel in history; a struggle alone; a struggle against unprecedented odds with self-professed friends, true, who through four and a half years supplied her enemy, Japan, with the major portion of the sinews of war,” Stuart continued. “We then found it easy and convenient, and I may add profitable, to supply our enemy. We now find it difficult to supply our friend.”

Of course, Stuart profited from his friendship with China. Accounting he provided to the FCC, and letters from Board of Information officials, show that by 1944, the Chinese paid him between $1,250 and $1,400 a month (equivalent to monthly payments of approximately $16,000 to $18,000 today).

After the war, Stuart lobbied C.L. Hsia, who had replaced Leaf at the China News Association, to raise funds for new transmission facilities in Nanjing, where the nationalists reestablished their capital in 1946. A perfectionist as always, Stuart was convinced the equipment for a proper broadcast wouldn’t exist in China unless it was designed to his specifications.

Stuart expected the project to cost $30,000 (equivalent to about $360,000 today). Hsia promised the government would pay for the work, and Stuart commissioned Hughes Aviation’s radio division to build its main components. He also ordered four Douglas fir poles and dozens of electrical and other components from contractors throughout Southern California. All of the supplies were to be packed up and shipped by boat to China. Stuart and his wife then made plans to travel to China to oversee its installation in person.

Arriving first in Shanghai, Stuart met many of the people with whom he’d been communicating by radio, including Mike Peng and “Newsreel” Wong, a photographer who had been a friend of Melville Jacoby’s and whose controversial—and possibly staged—1937 picture of a wailing baby at the bomb-destroyed Shanghai South Railway Station appeared on the cover of Life magazine and numerous Hearst papers.

Before Stuart even arrived in China, the new radio facilities overran cost estimates, and relations between Stuart and Hsia chilled. But the project proceeded. Aside from the new transmitters Stuart installed, he worked with IBM to develop a “radiotype” machine able to transmit text at 100 words per minute. Where once it was crucial for Alacia to carefully transcribe program scripts and other materials, this new technology made her work unnecessary; XGOY could send its scripts with its broadcasts and networks could automatically print them.

But after the Communists defeated the Kuomintang in the Chinese Civil War, Stuart’s work with the nationalists ended. By the early 1950s he had dismantled his operation at Pierpont and moved from the beach to a hillside avocado ranch in East Ventura. Memories of Doc Stuart’s exploits faded as the United States turned away from its Chinese ally and the Pacific bristled with Cold War tensions. Meanwhile, in Chongqing, the Civil War, the Maoist Cultural Revolution that followed, and decades of industrialization buried all but the shallowest memories of China’s wartime capital. Eventually, restaurants, warehouses, and stores filled the underground tunnels that had once housed the radio station on the other end of Stuart’s line.

Occasionally, former nationalist Chinese officials, journalists, and others who had worked with Stuart stopped to see him in Ventura during visits to Southern California, but they were quiet, private events. By the time I was a child, there was no sign of Stuart’s radio days in the city.

His house on Pierpont was converted into five apartments decades ago. The Held family keeps most of Stuart’s personal artifacts at a ranch in the hills between Ventura and Santa Paula, while the XGOY records wound up with a scholar of East Asian history and are now in special collections at the University of Oregon.

I stumbled upon Stuart’s story serendipitously, but when I last returned home to Ventura, I strolled past El Jardin and wondered what shoppers would think if they knew what had taken place there a lifetime ago. On Christmas Eve, I went down to Pierpont, stopped at the old Tudor house on the entrance to Devon Lane, and then walked down the street to sit on the beach. There, I stared across the Pacific. I knew that three-quarters of a century earlier Melville Jacoby’s voice had come crackling through the air, telling the story of a world being torn to shreds. Thanks to Doc Stuart, that voice reached its home in California.

Alacia Held, Doc Stuart’s wife, transcribed XGOY’s broadcasts throughout the war.
Photograph courtesy of Debra Whitson.


1 G.W. Johnstone, Director of News and Special Features, The Blue Network, letter “To Whom it May Concern,” 23 May 1944, New York, NY, p.1, Charles E. Stuart Papers, Ax 415, box 6, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon 97403-1299.

2 Michael Ditmore, “The Original Chinese Fire Drill…How a Dentist got to Nanking,” Key-Klix, Santa Barbara Amateur Radio Club, Vol. 57, Issue 5, May, 2010, Santa Barbara, California.

3 Harrison Forman, “The Voice of China,” Colliers, 17 June 1944.

4 Ed Souder, “Salute to Dr. Charles E. Stuart,” The Blue Network radio transcript, 23 March 1945, 1451 GMT, Charles E. Stuart Papers, Ax 415, box 6, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon 97403-1299.

5 Douglas MacArthur, “Special Service Message for Dr. Stuart from Supreme Commander for Allied Powers Addressed to the Japanese Emperor,” 15 Aug. 1945—1329 GMT—9805 Kilocycles, Charles E. Stuart Papers, Ax 415, box 6, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon 97403-1299.

6 Rana Mitter, Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II 1937–1945 (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), 11.

7 Federal Communications Commission, Application for Radio Station Construction Permit by Charles Edward Stuart, 4 April 1943, Charles E. Stuart Papers, Ax 415, box 6, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon 97403-1299.

8 Earl H. Leaf, “Behind Chinese Lines,” Eyewitness, Robert Spiers Benjamin, ed. (New York, NY: Alliance Book Corp., 1940), 132.

9 Melville Jacoby, letter to Elza Meyberg, 2 June 1940, 10:00 p.m.

10 Dr. Charles E. Stuart, letter to Frances Mason, p.3, Charles E. Stuart Papers, Ax 415, box 6, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon 97403-1299.

11 William Carter, letter to Dr. Charles Stuart, 19 Nov. 1941, Chicago, Illinois, Charles E. Stuart Papers, Ax 415, box 6, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon 97403-1299.

12 Dr. Charles E. Stuart, letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 14 Sept. 1942, Ventura, California, Charles E. Stuart Papers, Ax 415, box 6, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon 97403-1299.


California as an Island

by Rebecca Solnit

From Boom Spring 2014, Vol. 4, No. 1

There’s truth in old maps

“General and Particular DESCRIPTION of AMERICA” by Herman Moll, first published in London in 1709.

1. Islands are places apart, but they are not necessarily isolated. California has long exported ideas and values to the mainland. Its most important imports are immigrants from across the country and the world who become Californians in various ways. Many of them also become the exports, the people who, transformed in some way, bring something of the Golden State with them when they return to India or Iowa as surgeons or poets or practitioners of some alternative mode of existence.

2. Major media outlets and politicians routinely refer to California as the world’s eighth largest economy, as though it were an independent country. New York is almost never mentioned as the world’s eleventh largest economy, perhaps because it is part of an interstate economic base that dilutes its identity, while California is flanked by comparatively unpopulated and states with smallish economies. Attached to the North American continent, it is nevertheless surrounded by deserts and mountains that isolate it as effectively as the ocean to its west and more so than the international border to its south. Equally cultural and political island, it is routinely distinct from or even in opposition to the rest of the United States, though its populous and liberal-to-left dominated coast obscures the state’s conservative interior from many observers; this is the state of Reagan and Nixon, and tax revolts, too. California is geographically and ecologically distinct from the rest of the country and the continent. It is also culturally distinct. The geography shaped the society, or rather the myriad geographies shaped the plethora of societies, in precontact indigenous times and in the present. Geography is identity, even when those shaped by it forget it.

“Paskaerte van Nova Granada, en t’Eylandt California” by Pieter Goos, first published in Amsterdam in 1666.

3. The description of California as a place apart persists, though in many variations it’s not just that California is an island but that Southern California is an island within it, and so is the Bay Area; and San Francisco is, in terms of both culture and climate, something of an island even within the Bay Area. The place contains marked differences within itself but as a whole is distinct from the rest of the country. Imagine it as an archipelago off the coast of the continent—many “islands” of distinct ecological and cultural presence or as degrees of islandness, of separateness from the mainstream.

“Nuova carta del polo artico secondo l’ultime osservazioni” by Isaak Tirion, first published in Amsterdam ca 1740.

4. One of the longest peninsulas on Earth, Baja is flanked on the east by the Sea of Cortez, which early navigators sailed without reaching all the way to where it joins with the mainland. For more than two centuries afterward, theories of California geography were debated from afar: it was a peninsula, an arm of a gigantic bay linked up with the also-mythical Northwest Passage (now a reality, thanks to climate change), it was an island, it was many islands. A beautiful map by Frederik de Wit of 1670 shows both the island of California, a perfect dagger afloat in the near Pacific, and a mythic Northwest Passage, the strait of Anian. Anian itself perhaps got its name from a place in Marco Polo’s unreliable account of China. Eventually, California would yield up wonders nearly as astonishing as those in the legends.

“Nova & accuratissima totius terrarum orbis tabula nautica variationum magneticarum index juxta observationes Anno 1700 habitas” by Edmond Halley, published in Amsterdam ca 1730–1750.

5. If you can recover the sense of wonder of the old explorers, you can see California as an island beyond even their fantasies, an island that is a world in miniature, this place about three-quarters the size of Madagascar, a little smaller than New Guinea or Sweden, this island with the tallest and the biggest trees in the world, one where the lowest point in North America (in Death Valley) is very close to the highest point in the lower forty-eight, Mount Whitney, where there are deserts in which it hardly rains and winds skid rocks across hard, flat ground and another place, near Donner Pass, that is the snowiest in the country, not excluding Alaska, and the snow piles dozens of feet high at times, where there are rainforests where your feet sink deep into moss and ferns under ancient dripping trees, lush valleys, great rivers, salt lakes (or at least one: Mono), enormous grasslands, and perhaps the richest farmland in the world, a world-famous wine country and an even larger shadow economy of marijuana in the north, the world capital of cinema in the south, and technology in the center, enclaves of almost every ethnicity on Earth, and more.

“Bankokuzu Zen: (Complete map of the World)” published in Japan in the eighteenth century.

Note on maps

These maps come from the Glen McLaughlin Map Collection at Stanford University Libraries. McLaughlin collected nearly 800 island of California maps over a period of forty years, assembling the largest privately held collection of these maps known. The essence of his collection is in its depth—materials ranging from hemisphere to world maps, title pages to celestial charts. The collection also includes multiple states of the same map, where minute differences between maps are preserved in sequence. Through a combination of a donation and a purchase, the maps came to Stanford University in 2011. Scanned maps are available online through the digital collections at Stanford University Libraries. The original maps are being accessioned and will be available in the near future at Stanford.

“A New and curious map of the world illustrated with the constellations of the cœlestial (i.e., celestial) globe & systems of the most celebrated philosophers” by John Byron, published in London in 1764.

The first mention of California as an island is in Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo’s Las Sergas de Esplandián, published in 1510. This rendering, coming from Montalvo’s imagination, became firmly embedded on maps—California was depicted as an island on maps in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This cartographic blunder was not exposed until Father Eusebio Kino’s map, entitled “A Passage by Land to California,” informed by his travels between 1698 and 1701. Even so, it took another half century for the island to attach itself back onto North America on maps—the maps lagged behind reality and became a cartographic phenomenon that defied the science of mapping. The island of imagination won over terrestrial reality and resulted in some of the most beautiful maps ever produced.

— G. Salim Mohammed, Digital and Rare Maps Librarian, Stanford University Libraries

All images from the Glen McLaughlin Map Collection courtesy Stanford University Libraries. You can find more information on each map above at the following links:

Herman Moll

Pieter Goos

Isaak Tirion

Bankokuzu Zen

John Byron


Reading Kevin Starr

by Rebecca Robinson

From Boom Winter 2013, Vol. 3, No. 4

Can the California dream be redeemed?

The opening of Gordon Jenkins’ California, recorded in 1948 for the 100th anniversary of the discovery of gold, begins with a hopeful miner striking out for the promised land. His voice rises, ever hopeful, over swelling strings:

We seek a new land, a dream-come-true land.

A golden rainbow that will never rust.

We’ve got faith and gumption and trust.

We’ll get to California or bust!

Jenkins’s boosterism is the familiar myth of the Golden State. Promising variously wealth, health, fame, and a middle-class wonderland for over a century and a half, it lured millions to California, and no one has done more to weave the promises and pitfalls of the California Dream into a coherent narrative than historian Kevin Starr. His Americans and the California Dream series of seven books tells the story of the state’s long rise and sharp fall using a dream motif, as illustrated in his book titles: Inventing the Dream, The Dream Endures, Embattled Dreams, and so on. It carries right on through to Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990–2003, at which point Starr concluded that the state wasn’t so much on the edge as halfway off it. In an interview, he said that it would take “a near-death experience” to bring the California Dream back from the dystopian destination it seemed to have made of itself.

1928 Sunkist Orange crate. Scan by Mark Catalena.

Bemoaning California’s fall from grace has become a source of morbid fixation for pundits and other onlookers, with no shortage of schadenfreude. Those declaring the dream dead are often baby boomers who came of age in an era of abundance. Are they riven by guilt about leaving a monumental mess for millennials, the generation born after 1980 to which I belong? Or just nostalgic? Crushing debt, crumbling infrastructure, educational and environmental crises: millennials will pay the price our whole lives for our predecessors’ prosperity, we’re told, without any of the advantages—economic stability, ambitious public works projects, political consensus—that bolstered California as they came of age.

The California Dream our elders are mourning is the one born in the wake of World War II and chronicled in Starr’s Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950–1963. There is a certain nostalgia to Starr’s prose, and he comes by it honestly. This era, during which he transitioned from childhood to adult life, is when California truly arrived on the national stage as a cultural, political, and economic force to be reckoned with—and to be envied. The fawning coverage in national magazines and TV ads featured sun-kissed couples playing tennis and cruising in their spectacularly finned sports cars on freeways that paralleled the shimmering Pacific waves. This dream was as much a place as a promise, an always-sunny state with residents who lived—indeed, defined—the good life, and stood on the shoulders of a generation that had survived both the Great Depression and World War II. California provided a safe haven for returned soldiers to start families in suburbia; a national model in the interstate system and other ambitious public works projects; and an engine of progress made possible by a political consensus that, up until the late fifties, enabled the growth and expansion of California into a virtual nation-state.

This rosy glow suffuses Golden Dreams. True, Starr occasionally reveals cracks in California’s veneer, but only in the volume’s final pages does he turn his focus to the dissenting voices that never got to bask in the dreamlight. While the California Dream did work for many families who were able to grow and prosper here, many more were left out. And aside from the mention of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta’s cofounding of the United Farm Workers and its role in galvanizing Hispanic farmworkers in rural areas, the stories of nonurban residents are largely absent from Starr’s examination of this pivotal period in California’s recent past. Perhaps it’s because their stories can’t match the grand scale of Starr’s larger-than-life characters (Peter O’Malley, Earl Warren, et al.), but their omission from a nearly 500-page volume serves to reinforce the perception of California as a city-centric state.

Starr’s Golden Dreams optimism is replaced in Coast of Dreams by a decidedly grim tone, as he chronicles the tumultuous events—the LA riots, the Northridge quake, the dot-com bust—that formed the backdrop of my childhood and were seared into my memory and those of residents and onlookers the world over. “Fewer and fewer people were speaking of the California dream these days,” Starr wrote in 2003. More “were talking about the challenges facing California.” California, it seemed, was becoming “a paradigm of the dream lost—a nightmare dystopia.”

Starr’s pessimistic turn was well-suited for the real estate bubbles, chronic budget deficits, stunted growth, and polarized politics that crippled the state in the aughts. It sounds all too familiar now, not just to those of us who came of age in the decade since its publication, but I would suspect as well to all those who were bypassed by his dream in the first place.

Bob’s Big Boy and Googie archictecture, two icons of California’s age of abundance, endure today. Photograph by Rafael Gonzalez.

But something new is stirring among a younger generation in California. Millennials age eighteen to twenty-nine polled for a 2012 California Forward survey have their fair share of anxiety about the economy and the cost of higher education, but the majority still see the state as a center of creativity, a leader in technological innovation and environmental conservation, and, like the pioneer’s mythic promised land, “a place of new beginnings where you can reinvent yourself.” Much is made about the flight of Californians to other states, but 85 percent of millennials polled plan to stay. Where some see failure, many of my generation see opportunity. We don’t necessarily want the dream of our parents’ generation, but a chance to make a place that truly benefits all Californians.

Though Starr, like many California writers, largely ignores rural communities, residents in these vast forgotten areas of America’s longest state are carrying out experiments that address head-on the great challenges of our time. In many cases, millennials are at the fore, leading community-based programs while also working to bridge the rural-urban divide—a crucial component of building a stronger state. And there are signs of renewal to be found in both urban centers and outside city limits.

A place I once called home—Monterey County—provides a vivid example of both the dystopic present and promising paths to a new California. Monterey County, to me, is California contained, with all its riches and contradictions. Its urban-rural split mirrors that of the state at large. Steeped in history, immortalized in art, and inextricably linked through agriculture to the global economy, it is a region equal parts promising and fraught.

The county’s natural beauty, human diversity and disparate realities are as strongly imprinted in my psyche as Dodger Stadium and the 210 freeway, where I spent many summer nights and gridlocked days as a Southern California kid. Its sense of history is so strong, from the still-intact adobes and repurposed sardine canneries in Monterey to the Cesar Chavez murals in Salinas, that it’s impossible not to feel part of a California story larger than oneself.

A sign in the Central Valley. Photograph by Calwest.

The state’s first constitutional convention took place at Colton Hall in 1849; indeed, it could be argued that California’s identity began to take shape in downtown Monterey. It is home to extreme wealth, as manifested in the mansions of Pebble Beach, and to grinding poverty, experienced disproportionately by minorities in Salinas and the majority-Latino South County towns. The peninsula towns are peaceful and provincial, where residents and tourists stroll through cypress groves and spot sea otters off the coast. The inland region is tumultuous, where big agriculture pollutes, gang violence claims young lives, and undocumented immigrants live in fear of deportation. It’s a globally recognized leader in marine research and a pioneer in endangered species conservation. Yet it’s sucking the Carmel River dry, destroying a vital ecosystem in the process. Its produce feeds a nation, but its workers can’t feed their families. Some cities are prosperous, others poor. It has century-old cottages and half-built condos. It’s Steinbeck country and Kerouac country. It is, as Starr describes California, “everything and nothing at all.”

The county’s endless fields of produce, blanketing the Salinas Valley in so many shades of green, belie a cruel irony at the local level. Despite its status as the “salad bowl of the world,” Monterey County has the highest percentage of food-insecure households in California. Although there’s no denying the vital role the county’s agricultural giants play in feeding a nation, it comes at a price: the immense quantities of pesticides used on crops are tainting the water runoff that empties into Monterey Bay and poisoning the farmworkers who inhale them every day. A land of plenty, a toxic threat: the Salinas Valley is both.

Flowers in bloom at Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. Photograph by Matthew Lee High.

But it’s also a laboratory for alternative approaches, which, while still small in scale, have a large reach and great potential to serve as models for a more sustainable future—one that embraces urban and rural, wealthy and downtrodden. The Agricultural and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) is one such initiative. ALBA, which has two farms in rural Monterey County, focuses on small farmers, the majority of whom are first-generation Latino immigrants with limited resources. Through intensive training in organic farming methods and ecologically sound land management, farmers, many of them millennials, grow crops that support the local food economy and make it to the shelves of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s supermarkets in San Francisco. They’re also actively involved in habitat restoration and work with ALBA staff to teach elementary school children in urban and rural districts about soil health, water quality, healthful foods, and career opportunities for small-scale farmers. ALBA’s approach, with its emphasis on empowering disadvantaged groups, eliminating food deserts, and promoting environmental stewardship, has earned national attention, numerous accolades, and strong partnerships with supermarkets serving urban centers. A number of its farmers are millennials, who have infused the nonprofit with new energy, ambition, and dedication to strengthening the connection between the rural areas growing organic food and the urban areas they serve.

Some of the most exciting incubators of progressive experiments are taking place in the small-town and rural areas that one in seven Californians call home, but that are virtually invisible to urban California. While they may not rise to the scale of the mega-projects of the state’s first modern-day golden age, experiments like these will play an important role in determining just how California will sustain itself in the future.

The new California will not be born of boosterism, and its rebirth may not come in time and at a big enough scale to provide a fitting end to the grand sweep of Starr’s works. Rather, small and modest scale experiments, urban and rural, may best be chronicled in understated stories that quietly celebrate the small, incremental changes that slowly but with certainty will move California forward. Our attraction to big themes and heroic stories often has impaired our ability to see progress on a smaller scale.

Yet despite his despair about California’s future, Starr contends, and I agree, that we’re likely to muddle through all this. Innovation is in California’s DNA. From the space program to the semiconductor, from biotech to cleantech, California has long been the birthplace of world-changing ideas, brought into being by natives and émigrés alike. The new California may never again be “that radiant golden vision” Starr believed in so strongly as a young man, but perhaps it’s becoming something better: a sustainable state, with an understanding that natural resources are finite, but human capital and imagination are boundless.

Succeeding will require my generation to undertake relentless experiments in service of an all-inclusive California Dream. We may be the unluckiest generation, but that’s also why we may be the perfect people to save California from itself: we’re sick of the narrative of decline that has been left to us, and we have a fierce desire to prove the naysayers wrong. If we face the future with a balance of idealism and pragmatism, we may win what philosopher Josiah Royce, the man at the center of Kevin Starr’s very first book on the California Dream, called our state’s “struggle for redemption in the face of failure.”


Man with a Mission


By Sara V. Torres

Three hundred years ago in the Mediterranean isle of Majorca, the man who would become known as the father of the California missions was born.  “Junípero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions” at the Huntington Library  commemorates the tricentennial of his birth with a visually stunning exhibition that weaves together the intertwined stories of Serra’s career as a missionary to Spanish America and the complex Indian responses to mission life through rich artifacts of material culture drawn from both Spain and early California. It is open through January 6.

On display are important documentary records of Serra’s own life and the founding of early California missions, along with maps, paintings, reliquaries, and early Indian artifacts, comprising nearly 250 objects from The Huntington’s collections and sixty lending institutions in the US, Mexico, and Spain. The exhibition gives voice to the wide range of Native American experiences in California missions and captures, through documents, artifacts, and oral histories, their spirit of cultural resilience in the face of pandemic illness and the incursion of new cultures. Audiovisual features help convey the rich cultural diversity of the nearly 350,000 Native Americans who lived in California at time of Serra’s arrival, and the survival of indigenous traditions through centuries of upheaval.

Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Conveying the full arc of the missions’ history, the exhibition moves forward in time to explore the secularization of the missions and the subsequent displacement and social marginalization of Indians during the annexation of Alta California into the US. Displays focusing on romanticized “myths of the missions,” including The Mission Play and the popular Ramona stories, stand in stark counterpoint to the documentary records and photographs of real-life missions, challenging visitors to think critically about the place of missions within state history and legend.

Co-curator Steven Hackel’s new biography, Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father (352pp, $27), complements the exhibition by painting a full and nuanced portrait of the famous Franciscan missionary in great scholarly detail, with a particular emphasis on the cultural, intellectual, and theological contexts of Serra’s upbringing and early career in Mallorca and how these experiences informed his mission work in Baja and Alta California. Together, the exhibition and biography tell a fascinating history of a man whose memory is lined with an aura of saintliness and whose legacy is imbued with controversy.