Remember those Forgotten Landscapes of California

I want to experience uncrowded beaches in California, when the only hazard might be a sloth of grizzlies feeding off a whale’s washed-up carcass.  I’d like to regard old growth redwood forests, when they weren’t yet old, and certainly not pockmarked by logging.  I’d like to see skies blackened by birdlife, including a condo of condors.  I want to see 10 pound smelt and 60 pound salmon swimming our creeks and rivers.

If you too want to travel back in time, then A State of Change, Forgotten Landscapes of California by Laura Cunningham is the sweetest prehistoric treat you’ll ever find.  Laura Cunningham presents a California from the good old days.

A State of Change looks like a textbook, and is heavy like a textbook, but it is a beautiful, artfully-informational book.  A State of Change represents Laura Cunningham’s life work.  She spent the past 30 years sleuthing, “Since 1980 I have traveled all over the state tracking the remaining vestiges and relictual pieces of semi-pristine landscapes in order to flesh out the narratives that I found.  The clues to the past yet remain, if one is willing to patiently seek them in the field.”

Laura Cunningham is an illustrator and a paleontologist.  She attended UC Berkeley (paleontology) and UC Santa Cruz (natural science illustration).  California’s Historical Ecology is her thing, “The lack of animals that were once called abundant, the new weedy plants, even the lowered water tables all call attention to profound changes that mark a major discontinuity in the long flow of California’s ecology.”

A State of Change considers both the hedge nettle (described as a “very leafy sweet marjoram” in Fray Crespi’s diary from his overland exploration to 55° north with Pedro Fages in 1772) and both acorn and buckeye pestled by natives as a dietary staple.

A State of Change informs us of grizzlies too.

The earliest written documentation, provided by Spanish explorer Vizcaíno in 1602, Monterey, “…beached whales scavenged by grizzlies.”  In 1769, Pedro Fages’ diary notes from a location a few miles west of San Luis Obispo, “In this canyon were seen whole troops of bears; they have the ground all plowed from digging in it to find their sustenance in the roots which the land produces.”  William Brewer, botanist of the California Geological Survey in the 1860s, found at Monterey, “a whale…stranded on the beach, and the tracks of grizzlies were thick about it.”  Laura tells us that “herds” of bears roamed the “coastal prairies of the San Francisco peninsula.  A grizzly was found swimming to Angel Island in 1827.  In the 1860s settler Jonathan Watson once saw three hundred grizzlies in a single valley in the Santa Cruz Mountains.”

“All of this abundance of food may also explain why grizzlies in California did not hibernate like their Rocky Mountain cousins,” writes Laura.

The grizzlies’ large population and perennial presence explains how the grizzly became extinct within only 50 years after the mass migration of the California Gold Rush, bringing seekers and settlers, overland and across the Isthmus from America, Europe, and Asia.  The Spanish already had abused the privilege of living amongst the grizzly, “Soldiers and gentlemen lasso a grizzly up in Loma Prieta by the paws and neck, muzzle it, and drag it back to the bull pit (Corralitos or, “little corral”) to celebrate Easter or some special occasion, such as the inauguration of the governor.  The bear’s leg would be tied to a pole, or to the leg of the bull, and a fight would erupt.  Sometimes the long-horned bull would win, goring the bear.  But another time, the bear would swing a mighty paw and knock the bull off its feet, killing it.”

“Many bears were poisoned with strychnine and trapped by stockmen.  In the Santa Cruz Mountains, grizzlies held out into the 1880s, then were gone.  By 1888 grizzly numbers had declined noticeably in the Santa Ana stronghold, and by 1898 bears were considered “shot out,” though isolated reports of grizzlies continued until 1913.”

I leave it to you readers to pursue locating Laura Cunningham’s book and examine its contents further.  A State of Change covers a range of prehistoric and historic flora and fauna.  Also check its sources:  the Bibliography runs from page 319 to 343 in a dense 6 pt. font.

A State of Change is a Heyday book.  A website dedicated to the book is located here.  A preview of this beautifully illustrated work is found on Google books.

3 thoughts on “Remember those Forgotten Landscapes of California

  1. If William Brewer were alive today he’d dig your blog, Tom! Very cool! Thank you for letting me know of it.

  2. This looks fantastic…I may need to get it.

    My fascination with the “forgotten landscapes of California” is what got me reading William Brewer. I’m currently posting Brewer’s letters in real time (+150 years), accompanied by present-day photos of the places he describes–a much less rigorous project than Cunningham’s, but in a similar spirit.

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