California Was Once a Garden

UCSC Upper Meadow

As I read Kat Anderson’s, Tending the Wild, I can’t help but be disturbed and repulsed by the European-Americans who settled California. For most of my life I paid little attention to California History. I admit this embarrassingly that I was quite ignorant for a long while about how California (where I was born and continue to live) was settled and about the people who populated this landscape before the Spanish Missions and Gold Rush. In high school I remember learning very little and in college, history was not my major, so I learned no more. Sadly I did not start to seek out knowledge until my late 20s.

This book recounts how California was prior to the invasion by the European-Americans. California was once a well-tended garden, not untouched wilderness. Every piece of California was managed in some way by the indigenous populations, using what we now call, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). Early explorers left accounts documenting California’s diversity and “sheer abundance of its wildlife,” and was later described by John Muir as a “massive flower garden.”

As more and more people came to the state for gold mining and settling of the west, the deterioration of the land and of the Native people snowballed. The treatment of the Native Americans was absolutely terrible with genocide and slavery the norm rather than the exception. At one point there was a decree that any white man could kill a Native American, simply to remove them from the land so the whites could take over.

Native Americans had no sovereignty over their own land that they had lived upon for thousands of years. The earth was removed from right underneath their feet. Their landscapes degraded by mining, European style farming, and livestock grazing. The once abundant landscape of antelope and elk and geese and various migrating birds and grizzlies and salmon and sea otters was degraded to almost nothing due to a lack of care and sustainable use of land.

“The historian Alfred Crosby emphasizes that the successful exploitation of the New World, particularly California, depended on the settlers’ ability to “Europeanize the flora and fauna of the New World,” and successful they were. By the mid- to late 1800s, much of the Central Valley was devoted to mechanized, monoculture farming operations with ties to worldwide markets.”

As I read on this makes me realize how little Californians know of their very own history. It’s time for that to change. Kat explains, “by understanding the ways that native peoples established long-term relationships with the land and its creatures, we may be able to forge a new kind of relationship with nature, based on connection, that carries with it both obligations and privileges – what Californian Indians would call reciprocity.”

For more information you can visit Tending the Wild on KCET for a series of videos and a documentary on the subject.

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