Imagining Old California

Have you ever wondered what California looked like five hundred, a thousand, or even five or ten thousand years ago? How about San Joaquin County? There were different people for sure, but what about animals, plants, and the land itself? What did the area’s long-lost ecosystems look like and how did they interact?

David Stuart, the executive director of the Society and Museum, recently introduced me to an amazing book that grapples with these issues. Its title is A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California (Berkeley: Heyday, 2010), and its author is Laura Cunningham, an artist-naturalist who studied paleontology and biology at U.C. Berkeley and has worked for the California Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Geological Survey, and a variety of universities.

Cunningham characterizes her book as Historical Ecology, which she defines as “the study of the history of a landscape and the life-forms that live on it, including ourselves and our experiences. I have approached this work,” she informs readers, “as an artist-naturalist might if she could visit Old California to explore, take notes, sketch, paint, and listen to the stories told about the changing landscape and wildlife” (23).

The author looks at Old California in slices. Drawing from recent scholarship, she studies the grizzly bear (left), inland marshes, oak trees, condors, salmon, and a range of other subjects that include how Native Americans used fire to manage the landscape. For me, the most compelling parts of the book are imagined paintings or sketches of California in the distant past. These include a jaguar stalking prey through a forest in Central California—a sight not unknown in the early years of the nineteenth century—Cunningham’s version of the area around Mission Santa Barbara five hundred years ago, and San Francisco Bay during the Pleistocene, when it was a valley covered with meadows, forests, and ancient bison.

This book is a well-written, professionally crafted, informative, and entertaining labor of love. However, Cunningham also has a larger agenda. The author sees balance in California’s ever-changing ecological landscape of the past and she wants to help those of us who live in the present “attain a level of habitat health comparable to that of California’s past landscapes” (297).

Cunningham’s book deserves to be read widely. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of its insights reflected in the new exhibit at the Museum that Dave is preparing on Native Americans in and around San Joaquin County.

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