Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources

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B went on a biking and birding tour of SF recently and came away with this recommendation from Josiah, our resident eco-nerd. The book was terrific, especially when sipped between sunlight patches in the wilds of Northern California near Ukiah. My biggest takeaway is that the natives were gardeners in this state, deeply involved in cultivating the seeds/bushes/wildflowers that gave them sustenance. They also were careful not to over-harvest, always leaving something for the next person to come behind and gather, leaving something for the next season to build on. Also, controlled burning had a real value and purpose, which we’ve abandoned.

  • Large quantities of quail: “In 1867 we moved to a ranch located between ‘Spanish-town’, now called Half-Moon Bay, and San Gregorio, on the coast side of San Mateo County. There I saw quail by the thousands everywhere…” – she mentions flocks being common of from one to five thousand. Another naturalist mentions a “plague” of quail at the missions. So what happened? In the 1880s and 1890s, millions of quail were shot or trapped; in 1895-6, 177k quail were sold in LA & SF.
  • “The cyclical departures and returns of wildlife were so predictable that California Indians, with their weirs, nets, and traps, could have extinguished large numbers of animals. Yet for the most part they did not, having learned that yearly abundance could be ensured by working with nature instead of taking advantage of it.”
  • The natives didn’t just submissively accept their fate of being snubbed out, they resisted with both active and passive actions.
  • Whites plowed ahead with over-harvesting everything they found in the garden that natives had cultivated. “By 1900, 40% of California’s 31 million acres of old-growth forest had been logged.” Between 1850-1910, relatively few Europeans and Asians caused major declines in dozens of bird & mammal populations, denuded entire landscapes, accelerated erosion, destroyed countless acres of productive wildlife & plants, decimated Indians & their culture. Yay!
  • Fires = good! 1) decrease detritus & recycle nutrients 2) control insects & pathogens 3) managing wildlife 4) modifying structure of forest & woodland vegetation 5) maintaining habitat for shade-intolerant species
  • Seed collection was done with seed beaters to remove edible seeds, falling directly into their baskets. To avoid rattlesnakes: smear arms & legs with tobacco (snakes supposedly hated the smell); also wore shiny ornaments to startle the snakes.
  • Sierra Mowok used 48 types of greens; we commonly eat about a dozen greens.