Wolves, Grizzlies and the Howling Wilderness of Change, Santa Barbara National Forest: Race and Recognition In the Woods

Sierra Madre Mountains, Cuyama, Santa Barbara County

Chief Standing Bear of the Oglala Sioux once stated that his people “did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills and the winding streams with their tangled growth as ‘wild.’ Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness’ and. . .the land ‘infested’ with ‘wild animals’ and ‘savage’ people.”

Quoted from Roderick Nash Wilderness and the American Mind (1973).

The chief’s statement stands to reason.

Chief Standing Bear and his people stood on a mountain of thousands of years of acquired knowledge about the land around them. The Sioux saw the world through the crystal clear lens of a sophisticated culture born of the land and in tune with its subtleties and they well knew how to live with ease from all nature provided.

The white man knew nothing of it.

To the white man the open wild country where the Sioux flourished appeared as a vast and frightening wasteland that his European culture had not prepared him to face.

In some places of the great prairies in the American Midwest prior to settlement the tallgrass reached heights of six to twelve feet. And that was all there was.

“The plains were not just unlike anything they had ever seen,” S. C. Gwynne writes of American pioneers heading west into the Great Plains. “They were, on some fundamental level, incomprehensible, as though a person who had lived in the high mountains all his life were seeing the ocean for the first time.”

Gwynne writes of a settler seeing the great grasslands for the first time:

“He would have seen nothing but a dead flat and infinitely receding expanse of grama and buffalo grasses through which only a few gypsum-laced rivers ran and on which few landmarks if any would have been distinguishable.

Travelers of the day described it as ‘oceanic,’ which was not a term of beauty. They found it empty and terrifying.

They also described it as ‘trackless,’ which was literally true: All traces of a wagon train rolling through plains grass would disappear in a matter of days, vanishing like beach footprints on an incoming tide.”

“At that point, everything the pioneer woodsman knew about how to survive—including building houses, making fire, and drawing water—broke down. It was why the plains were the very last part of the country to be settled.”

S. C. Gwynne Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker, and the Rise and Fall of the Commanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe In American History

Dan Flores writes that to some folks nowadays such as in the Sierra Club or Edward Abbey fans wilderness is “a worship word, sacred. . . But for many, maybe most, rural West Texans beyond forty, wilderness is what their great-granddaddies fought and their granddaddies conquered in this country. Wilderness is the enemy.”

Dan Flores Caprock Canyonlands: Journeys Into the Heart of the Southern Plains (1990)

The idea of wilderness as an adversary is perhaps what we see in the comment of early US Forest Service Ranger, Jacinto Damien Reyes:

“When I came here this country was a howling wilderness. It was infested with wolves, coyotes and grizzly bears; and they did a lot of damage to our livestock.”

Born in 1871, Jacinto Reyes lived most of his life in Ventura County’s upper Cuyama River valley in southern California. He spent over 30 years working as a US Forest Service ranger patrolling the Cuyama District of what was then known as the Santa Barbara National Forest.

A previous post on this blog mentions in his own words how his family hunted down and killed grizzly bears:

Previous Post:  Gladiator Games of Bulls and Bears: Recollections of Jacinto Damien Reyes (1880)

Grizzlies and wolves no longer exist here in the southern Los Padres National Forest. One wonders how radically the land and its biological systems have changed with their absence.

What trophic cascades were unleashed in the southern Los Padres National Forest and its designated wilderness reserves with the disappearance of such large mammals?

Caroline Fraser puts it simply: “The environment needs predators. They regulate ecosystems in ways we can never re-create artificially.”

Fraser continues:

“When wolves and bears were exterminated in most of the lower forty-eight states, our trigger-happy forefathers unwittingly set in motion a biological experiment in ecosystem impoverishment.”

Caroline Fraser Rewilding the World: Dispatches From the Conservation Revolution (2010)

When wolves returned to Yellowstone an extraordinary and unimaginable series of events occurred that changed the way a river flowed. The video below narrated by George Monbiot discussions the concept of trophic cascades and the far reaching impact of wolves on their environment.

Jacinto Reyes’ expression of a “howling wilderness” was a classic phrase of the day and reflects popular American sentiment of the time. He was, as they say, a man of his times.

As historian Roderick Nash notes, the term howling was a popular descriptor applied to wilderness back in the day by a citizenry leery of it, because they had to battle it daily to live. He quotes numerous primary sources using the term through the years.

Today wilderness is not much thought of as a foe or enemy. Change in popular sentiment came about, Nash writes, as civilization conquered the threat of wildness in most areas of the nation.

Today we may romanticize places that are much different now but were terrifying, dangerous and deadly to those Americans that carved out lives here before us.

We may forget or discount the historical context of the times that influenced and informed their decisions back then which do not always measure up to our contemporary values and ideals now.

Perhaps it is unfair for Fraser to write of people like Reyes as “trigger-happy.” She may have had a different view if she had been the one living in the mountains in 1880 with wolves and grizzlies and was a day’s ride on horseback to and from the nearest town and communication with the outside world.

Jacinto Reyes National Scenic Byway in winter.

The United States Forest Service presents a page memorializing Jacinto Reyes as the first Hispanic ranger rather than criticizing or condemning him as an agent of extinction in a state with the absent grizzly bear on the flag.

The Jacinto Reyes National Scenic Byway was named in his honor and runs through Los Padres National Forest.

A National Parks Service page celebrates his service: History of Mexican Americans In California: Cuyama District Ranger Station, Los Padres National Forest, Ventura County.

And rightly so.

We do not judge the man by today’s environmental standards, while sequestered away from the natural world in a city, and swaddled within our plush and comfy well-stocked homes with running water and electricity and lights and refrigeration and plumbed gas stoves and heaters and supermarket grocery stores nearby and 911 and hospitals a short distance away and paved roads and cars to get us there.

This is the on-the-one-hand-but-yet-on-the-other-hand tight rope we walk when grappling with the muddled mess of history and the multifaceted and multilayered characters we find back there.

And so how much do we overlook of Junipero Serra’s record in order to celebrate him and the padres and name our wildlands Los Padres National Forest?

“I am sending them to you so that a period of exile, and two or three whippings which Your Lordship may order applied to them on different days, may serve, for them and for the rest, for a warning, may be of spiritual benefit to all; and this last is the prime motive of our work. If Your Lordship does not have shackles, with your permission they may be sent from here.”

—Father Serra in a letter to a military commander regarding runaway California Indians

“In the midst of all our little troubles, the spiritual side of the missions is developing most happily. In [Mission] San Antonio, there are simultaneously two harvests, at one time, one for wheat, and of a plague among the children, who are dying.”

—Father Serra referencing the deaths of California Indian children in like manner as harvests of wheat

The Lesser-Told Story Of The California Missions

What in history should we focus on and what should we pay less attention to?

Sunset view from Jacinto Reyes National Scenic Byway

Victor Davis Hanson is a fifth-generation raisin farmer from the Central Valley of California and an historian. He lives in the farmhouse built by his great-great grandparents in the 1870s. He earned a PhD in classics from Stanford in 1980.

In his book Mexifornia: A State of Becoming (2003), Hanson says of the Father Serra matter:

“In the fourth grade we were asked to memorize the names of the California missions. Protestant and Catholic alike learned that Father Serra was a civilizing, if flawed figure that tried to introduce agriculture, transportation and some refinement to a barren California landscape. In contrast, later generations have been told that the friar whipped Indians and forced them to convert to Catholicism. Surely the truth lies somewhere between the romanticism of my own education and the cynicism of the current indoctrination. But what is missing in the new dispensation is any sense that the world in which we live now—the cosmos of universities, the rule of law, antibiotics, surgery and eye glasses—for good or ill evolved from the world of Father Serra, not from the indigenous peoples of California whom he may or may not have oppressed.”

Serra came to California with the Portola Expedition to begin the mission system.

The Forest Service says of Jacinto Reyes:

“Reyes’ great grandfather, Juan Francisco Reyes (1747-1809), was a member of the Portola Expedition that arrived in (Alta) California in 1768.”

A plaque on a boulder at the Santa Barbara Courthouse memorializes the expedition as the “the first white men to march through the wilderness of California.”

The Los Padres National Forest was named in a similar manner.

“It will be seen that the Santa Barbara National Forest was the result of a consolidation of different national forest units. It was located, however, in six counties and residents of other counties somewhat resented the name Santa Barbara. Public pressure was brought to bear on local administrators to change to a name less identified with one county. The four counties of Ventura, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Monterey, in which the bulk of the national forest was located, were all closely identified with mission history, and the trail of the Mission fathers led over the rugged slopes of the Santa Barbara National Forest. Furthermore, nine of the old missions were located adjacent to the national forest area, already replete with an atmosphere of Spanish and Mexican days. It was quite logical that the name finally chosen, “Los Padres” (The Fathers), would be met with universal approval, so by executive order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, dated December 3, 1936, the Santa Barbara National Forest became Los Padres National Forest, ‘The Forest of the Fathers’–a fitting memorial to its first white users.”

William S. Brown History of the Los Padres National Forest, 1898-1945 (1945)

Reyes Peak in the Los Padres National Forest in neighboring Ventura County was named for Jacinto’s father, Rafael Reyes.

These matters are intertwined and deeply woven into the cultural cloth of our community from an assortment of ethnic threads and we cannot yank one thread without disrupting the cloth of which it is a larger part.

If we yank one thread out, it may unravel the tapestry, may pull other threads with it, may fray the edges of the cloth and weaken the integrity and strength of the collective whole.

What sort of social trophic cascade may be let loose? And where would it stop?

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The Myth Of Wilderness and Ethnocentrism: Race and Recognition In the Woods

Los Padres National Forest, Santa Barbara County

“The evidence strongly suggests that the prehistoric Indians’ effect on the environment can no longer be ignored by scientists and government agencies charged with stewardship of our natural resources.”

M. Kat Anderson Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources (2005)

The environmental legacy of Native Americans deserves wider recognition, and greater influence in the management of our forests and wilderness areas. If the dignity of all Americans does not demand this, the health of our wildlands may depend on it.

One national creation myth of these United States holds that North America was a pristine continent prior to European contact and the spread of American settlers.

“A virgin, undisturbed, Edenic landAmerica was, in the language of a later day, a wilderness,” Stephen Pyne writes regarding common early American thought.

“It mattered not,” he continues, “that such concepts were not only anthropogenic but also ethnocentric.”

Stephen Pyne Fire In America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire (1997)

To early Americans an uncleared, untilled, unfenced land without permanent structures and no obvious sign of capital improvement or development was a land that appeared unowned, uninhabited, and untouched.

They did not recognize all the ways in which many generations of Native Americans through thousands of years had altered the land.

“Much of the landscape of California that so impressed early writers, photographers, and landscape painters was in fact a cultural landscape, not the wilderness they imagined,” Anderson writes. “While they extolled the ‘natural’ qualities of the California landscape, they were really responding to its human influence.”

The myth of original virginal purity and a primeval forest endured and was officially enshrined in the American national consciousness in the Wilderness Act of 1964.

The law describes wilderness as “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.”

The land is seen as primeval, natural and without human habitation. The law failed to recognize anything about the long tenure of native peoples on the land.

When signing the act into law President Johnson spoke as if Native Americans never existed. He romantically described wilderness as “the world as it was in the beginning.”

The president’s words and the language of the law make it seem as if the Native Americans we all know lived around here for millennia did so like mannequins without effect.

History was ignored.

In the twenty-first century, at this late date, rather amusingly, we still tell ourselves this soothing fairy tale of purity whenever we designate new wilderness areas; perhaps a necessary act of preservation in the face of relentless and insatiable rapaciousness, yet one rooted in myth nonetheless.

A mortar in the forest, Santa Barbara County.

Roderick Nash, professor emeritus of history and environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, writes about how Americans overlooked native culture when designating wilderness in Alaska.

“From the natives’ perspective the whole concept of wilderness was a curious, white myth that ignored history,” Nash writes regarding Native American sentiment.

He continues, “As anthropologist William Brown recognized, the whole concept of wilderness in Alaska is ‘ethnocentric to the point of being insulting.’”

Roderick Nash Wilderness and the American Mind (1967)

Wilderness was an imposition of a romantic white cultural conceit.

The concept of wilderness as a dangerous place of wild and uncontrollable lifeforms and the word itself came to America from Europe.

“It is revealing that most Native American languages are unable to translate it,” Dan Flores writes.

“Never mind the ethnocentric dimensions,” Flores writes, “Indians obviously had altered and been gazing on the continent for centuries, and what seemed ‘virgin’ was actually a landscape maintained for hunting.”

Dan Flores Caprock Canyonlands (1990)

Living agents of change with a sophisticated and intimate understanding of the land and its plants and animals, Native Americans changed their environment in subtle and significant ways to suit their needs of survival, to thrive and to flourish.

Indian wild gardens in California took the breath away from Europeans and early Americans when they first arrived.

They mistook the beautiful abundance for the work of nature alone without recognizing it was to some extent the creation of humanity.

The use of broadcast fire was perhaps the most important and far-reaching tool.

“It was in large measure owing to the Indian and his Grandfather Fire that the forest primeval had already been widely cleared, converted and otherwise managed,” Pyne writes regarding “the myths of the virgin forest and the forest primeval.”

In the Wilderness Act Americans sought to preserve something that did not exist.

Chumash incised grooves, cultural markings, on a boulder beside a seasonal brook in a mountain meadow, Los Padres National Forest, Santa Barbara County.

The widespread and long-term use of fire altered the distribution and arrangement of plants across the land, which in turn influenced the lives and behavior of its organisms and animals.

The land, though still wild and natural in most respects, became in other regards a product of humanity.

Pyne in Fire In America :

“So extensive were the cumulative effects of these modifications that it may be said that the general consequence of Indian occupation of the New World was to replace forested land with grassland or savannah, or, where the forest persisted, to open it up and free it from underbrush. Most of the impenetrable woods encountered by explorers were in bogs or swamps from which forest was excluded; naturally drained landscape was nearly everywhere burned.”

“Taken in its broadest meanings to include plains, prairies, barrens, savannahs, and wetlands, grasslands were probably the dominant cover type in North America at the time of European discovery. . . .nearly all these grasslands were created by man, the product of deliberate, routine firing. . . .Continuous or not, grasslands followed the Indians nearly everywhere they took broadcast fire.”

In the introduction to Omer Call Stewart’s, Forgotten Fires: Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness (2009), Henry T. Lewis and M. Kat Anderson describe a similar scene:

“Indigenous burning practices are a. . . significant part of almost every habitat’s historical ecology. . . .Indigenous burning practices were so successful in altering pathways of vegetation change that most of North America does not fit the definition of a pristine, uninhabited wilderness at the point of European contact. . . .The success of indigenous economies depended on setting fires.”

The United States Forest Service on California:

“Land use in the Native American period was characterized by hunting and gathering. Ethnographic information indicates that Native Americans used fire as a management tool to facilitate both hunting and gathering of certain plant materials (Lewis, 1973). Fires were set annually in lower elevation grasslands and some chaparral areas were periodically burned in the fall (Aschmann, 1959).”

-Joe R. McBride and Diana F. Jacobs, “Land Use and Fire History in the Mountains of Southern California (PDF),” United States Forest Service

Chumash pictograph cave, National Forest Wilderness, Santa Barbara County

One of the oldest human skeletons found in North America was discovered in 1959 on Santa Rosa Island in Santa Barbara County.

The bones, alternatively having been called the “Arlington Springs Man” or “Arlington Springs Woman,” are believed to be around 13,000 years old.

The Chumash people bridged the gap between the prehistoric and historic periods in this region.

Jan Timbrook, Curator of Ethnography at Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, cites several primary sources of “ethnohistoric evidence which shows that the Chumash did deliberately use fire in ways which may have had pronounced long-term environmental effects.”

Jan Timbrook in “Vegetation Burning by the Chumash”:

“It seems likely that the Santa Barbara coast in pre-European times was dominated by grassland and oak savanna. … Indian burning may also have been an important factor in maintaining the openness of oak savanna in coastal areas.

Chumash arrowhead, Los Padres National Forest, Santa Barbara County

Wilderness is an American cultural conception, an abstraction existing in the collective minds of the American people.

One day a stretch of wildlands exists out there. The next day a law, words on paper, is passed and the land is suddenly wilderness. Voila!

Nothing changed but the particular way in which the citizenry seeks to categorize and control the land and its wildlife. And then we fight over it ever after. It’s good fun.

That the land to be protected may be the product of Native American stewardship stretching back millennia through countless generations is overlooked.

That Americans changed the land by removing the Indian and ending native management practices rooted in ancient traditional ecological knowledge is overlooked.

The complicated history of the land goes unrecognized or is largely if not altogether ignored in order to prop up and promote the simple national myth.

Chumash petroglyph cave, National Forest Wilderness, Santa Barbara County

Ironically some of the wilderness Americans sought to protect and preserve may have grown as a result of their fellow countrymen’s own actions in settling the country.

“Almost wherever the European went, forests followed,” Stephen Pyne writes. “The Great American Forest may be more a product of settlement than a victim.”

Whereas Native Americans regularly fired large portions of the land across the continent, American settlement brought with it a general reduction in fire, which allowed for the growth of forests.

Pyne in Fire In America:

“The effect of European settlers was in general to reverse that [grassland] frontier, first by occupying the land and then by bringing with them the forest, an environment that Indians found largely uninhabitable. Reforestation, primarily through direct or de facto fire control, has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of the young aboriculture and forestry movements.”

Aldo Leopold in Sand County Almanac (1949):

“In the 1840’s a new animal, the settler, intervened in the prairie battle. He didn’t mean to, he just plowed enough fields to deprive the prairie of its immemorial ally: fire. Seedling oaks forthwith romped over the grasslands in legions, and what had been the prairie region became a region of woodlot farms. If you doubt this story, go count rings on any set of stumps on any ‘ridge’ woodlot in southwest Wisconsin. All trees except the oldest veterans date back to the 1850’s and the 1860’s, and this is when fires ceased on the prairie.”

John Muir in Boyhood and Youth (1913):

“The uniformly rich soil of the Illinois and Wisconsin prairies produced so close and tall a growth of grasses for fires that no tree could live on it. Had there been no fires, these fine prairies, so marked a feature of the country, would have been covered by the heaviest forest. As soon as the oak openings were settled, and the farmers had prevented running grass-fires, the grubs grew up into trees and formed tall thickets so dense that it was difficult to walk through them, and every trace of the sunny ‘openings’ vanished.”

National Forest Wilderness, Santa Barbara County

Folks nowadays have inherited the environmental product of all those people that lived on the land long before.

Wilderness is not primeval and untrammeled.

Wilderness is an artifact.

There is no going back to “the world as it was in the beginning,” as President Johnson declared when he signed the Wilderness Act.

“Once man had played God. . .he could not stop his intervention. The primeval scene was gone forever,” Alston Chase writes regarding wilderness management of Yellowstone.

He makes a simple point.

“Natural conditions, like virginity, once lost, could never be recovered.”

Alston Chase Playing God In Yellowstone: The Destruction of America’s First National Park (1987)

We cannot go back or return to the beginning because we—Homo sapiens, that is, Native Americans generally, the Chumash specifically in Santa Barbara and the people that followed—long ago intervened in nature and forever altered the course of evolution.

Anderson on the legacy of Native American land management:

A reassessment of the record in California reveals that land management systems have been in place here for at least twelve thousand years—ample time to affect the evolutionary course of plant species and plant communities. . .

When the first Europeans visited California, therefore, they did not find in many places a pristine, virtually uninhabited wilderness but rather a carefully tended “garden” that was the result of thousands of years of selective harvesting, tilling, burning, pruning, sowing, weeding, and transplanting.

*

In many cases these landscapes experienced far greater degrees of managerial care and ecologically sophisticated manipulation than are found today. Over time, indigenous peoples’ investment in time and energy in tending many habitats produced real biological changes in those habitats. Important features of major ecosystems may have developed as a result of human intervention.

Yet even if we cannot return to the world as it was in the beginning it may be tempting to think we can return wildness to wilderness if only we step away and let nature alone to take care of itself.

When Ventana Wilderness Alliance in November of 2019 posted a news story regarding road closures in Monterey County, California and the resulting reduction of forest access for recreationists, a man offered an enthusiastic endorsement of the closures believing that keeping humanity out would lead to a wilder wilderness.

“Praise doggod!” he exclaimed amusingly. “Lack of funding making wilderness more wild!”

Would that were it true. But wildness and wilderness are not the same thing.

We may have a huge tract of designated wilderness, but with not much wildness in it.

Some stretches of wilderness around this neck of the woods today were once home to grizzly bears and wolves and bighorn sheep and condors and steelhead trout and many other species that are now drastically reduced, critically endangered or regionally extinct.

The image of the bear on the California flag represents the last known grizzly that lived in the state. The bear did not die of natural causes. The bear was shot to death.

The wilderness was designated and human access greatly restricted and wheeled transportation and motored machines prohibited, no roads of any sort assured, but such measures did not increase wildness.

Chumash pictograph cave, National Forest Wilderness, Santa Barbara County

A gentleman from a local chapter of the Sierra Club, and whose family has given land that was preserved and protected from development in perpetuity around these parts, offered a similar and common interpretation of wilderness in a newsletter:

“The wildness of the land, wilderness we call it, is a place untouched by the human hand where each of us can go to be in awe of our natural world.”

Paul Shepard drew a sharp and critical distinction between wildness and wilderness.

“Wildness is a genetic state,” he wrote. “Wilderness is a place that we have dedicated to the wildness.”

He goes on to note that, “To his credit Thoreau did not say, ‘In wilderness is the preservation of the world.’ The Great Aphorist did damage enough without confusing wildness and wilderness.”

Instead, Thoreau wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

Paul Shepard Coming Home To the Pleistocene (1996)

In the genetic bank of wildness is the preservation of the land; land as understood in the all encompassing sense that Aldo Leopold used the word to describe not only the ground, but the flora and fauna that live in and on it. Everything. The collective biotic systems.

Protecting wildness is much different than protecting wilderness.

Protecting wildness often times requires human intervention, the touch of human hands, and so the setting aside of the myth of an untrammeled wilderness.

A lack of funding to government agencies does not make wilderness more wild. That the road leading to wilderness is closed does nothing for our cause here either.

The condor serves as the greatest icon of both wildness and wilderness in Santa Barbara County.

The bird humanity saved from extinction after nearly causing it in the first place.

Our hands are all over everything. We have left finger prints at the scenes of many misdemeanors and crimes.

Humanity is inextricably bound up in this story of life. Humans play the part of evolutionary engineers picking and choosing intentionally or otherwise. Humans are the ultimate agent of change.

Whether we choose to fire the forest or extinguish fires in the forest, we are selecting one way or the other, and altering the course of life on the land.

Pyne in Fire In America:

“In many environments fire, anthropogenic or natural, is the controlling agent of ecological dynamics, exerting an inordinate influence on the composition of flora and fauna, on their historical arrangements, and on their contemporary energetics.

Fire in natural, as in cultural, systems is as effective an agent by being withheld as by being applied.”

Paul S. Martin in Twilight of the Mammoths (2007):

“We often identify as ‘wild’ conditions those that are in fact heavily influenced by humans. In appraising ecosystems, both ecologists and the general public may overlook, or leave to the anthropologists, or simply take for granted the one mammal of overriding importance — Homo sapiens.”

A cave beside a mountain meadow in National Forest Wilderness, Santa Barbara County

We may be losing wildness within our wilderness because of our hands-off management approach.

The genetic bank of wildness is not what it once was not despite the Wilderness Act, but perhaps because of it.

Wilderness today may becoming less wild without humanity rather than more wild.

Native Americans not only manipulated the ecological succession of the land and its floral composition using fire, but actively tended the wild in numerous other ways as Anderson details.

These practices together carried out through millennia did not just temporarily change the appearance of the land, but reoriented biological systems thus setting the natural world on a new evolutionary course.

In the face of such history the idea of an untouched primeval American wilderness unravels and falls apart. The myth is shattered.

But another crucial point arises.

Native American tending of the wild resulted in an abundant and prolific diversity of plants and animals otherwise not possible without the touch of human hands.

Today, with our national neglect of Native American history and traditional ecological knowledge, this natural richness has diminished and these wild communities of plants and animals may further decline or disappear.

Anderson in Tending the Wild:

“The disturbance caused by California Indians’ use of fire in a variety of ecosystems, occurring at intermediate intensities and frequencies, promoted a maximally heterogeneous mosaic of vegetation types and increased species diversity.”

Rather than becoming wilder without humans it might be said that these places have become less wild as the floral composition of the land becomes more homogeneous, less diverse, without the careful hand in Indian tending.

If we are to think of plants and animals as the denizens of wilderness, then the fewer of these wild characters that reside in the neighborhood the less wild the place is.

We should not conflate the absence of humanity and wildness.

And not only does it appear that we have lost some diverse communities of plants in some places, but the animals and organisms once found there as well.

The land as tended by Native Americans “supported a rich and varied fauna of butterflies, birds, and small mammals that is now largely absent,” Anderson suggests.

The many species previously attracted to these once robust and prolific places have declined or disappeared as the habitat changed with the absence of Indian stewardship.

Anderson in Tending the Wild:

“Removing California Indians from traditional economic and land management roles in California has not led to a prehuman state of nature in our wildland areas. Instead, the hands-off approach to management of wilderness preserves is jeopardizing the long-term stability of many plant communities.”

So what’s a wilderness?

Whatever it is, a wilderness is not primeval and untrammeled at this late stage of the continent’s human occupation.

So why bind ourselves to this romantic national myth any longer in managing our wildlands when doing so may threaten and degrade the very treasures we seek to preserve and protect?

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Rename Los Padres National Forest? Race and Recognition In the Woods

Should Los Padres National Forest be renamed?

In the roiling social wake of the George Floyd killing, and the peaceful protests and the violence and destruction that erupted across these United States and the world, in this moment of national reflection and argument on matters of race and recognition and respect, when statues of Confederate as well as Union leaders have been toppled, and the military stands guard around the Lincoln Memorial, the question above comes to mind.

Here in Santa Barbara a small nation of dark skinned people were once forcibly rounded up by other light skinned people motivated by a supremacist ideology, removed from their homes, and taken to camps where their kidnappers pressed them into labor, chased down runaways, and through the systematic use of violence from beatings to murder sought to reeducate them and strip them of their culture.

The events sound reminiscent of the antebellum American South.

This happened to the Chumash Indians in Santa Barbara County at the hands of the Spanish Franciscan friars, the padres.

The padres manifest their nation’s destiny by the sword over the peaceable hunter-gatherers, motivated by a sense of duty to a superior god and for the glory of Crown and Church and their exceptional nation-state, as they saw it.

These sorts of aggressive and belligerent actions were commonplace at the time and throughout history, nothing singular in their cruelty, and arguably in accordance with international law known as right of conquest.

Today we recognize the moral bankruptcy of the might makes right argument.

Morning at a spring in the Chumash Wilderness.

History is horrific.

“Women are never whipped in public, but in an enclosed and somewhat distant place that their cries may not excite a too lively compassion, which might cause the men to revolt.”

So wrote Jean Francois de la Perouse in 1786 after visiting a California mission and witnessing the abuse of Indians and the inner workings of the padres’ regime of oppression.

“The latter, on the contrary, are exposed to the view of all their fellow citizens, that their punishment may serve as an example,” La Perouse wrote regarding the punishment of Indian men by the padres.

La Perouse described a system of institutionalized control and abuse similar to slave plantations he’d seen in Santo Domingo:

These punishments are adjudged by Indian magistrates, called caciques. There are three in each mission chosen by the people from among those whom the missionaries have not excluded. However, to give a proper notion of this magistracy, we must observe that these caciques are like the overseers of a plantation: passive beings, blind performers of the will of their superiors. Their principal functions consist in serving as beadles in the church, to maintain order and the appearance of attention.

No doubt the padres carefully guided the selection of their caciques in order to facilitate Spanish conquest.

Disobedience,  insubordination, intransigence were not tolerated. Hence the whippings.

Walker A. Tompkins, the late Santa Barbara historian, wrote of what was the largest organized revolt in the history of California missions and noted that the fight of 1824 began “over the flogging of a Purisima neophyte.”

Outraged over the beating, the Indians burned much of the Santa Ines mission and surrounding buildings and the uprising spread to Santa Barbara and La Purisima missions.

The passage above from La Perouse calls to mind the epithet of “house negro” in describing such servants as the caciques that aided their oppressors if only to slightly better their own plight.

Malcolm X can tell you about it: Malcolm X: The House Negro And The Field Negro Speech.

La Perouse concluded that the padres thought of the California Indians as “too much a child, too much a slave, too little a man.”

White slave holders and postbellum oppressors routinely referred to black men in America as “boy” and to this day the simple word can be explosive and is loaded with the freight of history.

Mr. T chose his stage name with this in mind, so that whenever somebody addressed him the word “mister” came first. Growing up he says he saw too many white men call black men “boy.”

Scott O’Dell won numerous awards for his 1960 novel, Island of the Blue Dolphins. The book is based on the true story of a Nicoleño girl left alone for 18 years on San Nicolas Island after the padres forcibly removed her people to the mainland. Juana Maria, as she came to be known, is buried at Old Mission Santa Barbara.

Previous post on this blog: Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island: A Female Robinson Crusoe (1897)

When Chumash Indians fled the Catholic Church’s ruthless grasp and escaped into the interior hinterlands to live with other holdouts the padres launched military expeditions to recapture the runaways.

The following describes events surrounding runaway Indians from Mission La Purísima in Santa Barbara County. One of the padres had an especial relish for children.

By 1817, Tulami, a Yokuts village on the northwestern shores of Buena Vista Lake, had developed a reputation among the Chumash neophyte Indians of Mission La Purísima as a refuge away from Spanish settlements.

In the winter of 1817, Father Mariano Payeras discovered that six neophytes left Mission La Purísima and headed east to Tulami without informing him or the other missionaries.

Because the neophytes neglected to ask the missionaries for permission to leave La Purísima, Father Payeras categorized the Indians as “fugitives.” He asked the commandant of the Santa Barbara presidio to organize a search party to capture and return the “fugitives” to the mission.

Owing to his previous successes in the conversion of children, Payeras was especially hopeful of retrieving the youngest Indian, a thirteen-year old boy named Sebastián Viquiét.”

—Paul Albert Lacson “Born of Horses:” Missionaries, Indigenous Vaqueros, and Ecological Expansion during the
Spanish Colonization of California

Swallowtail on an iris beside the spring in the Chumash Wilderness, June, 2020.

In 1936, wildlands in and around Santa Barbara County once home to the Chumash for thousands of years were named Los Padres National Forest in honor of the Franciscan friars.

In 2007, in support of renaming San Marcos Pass the Chumash Highway, then California State Assembly representative, Pedro Nava, cited a “peer reviewed study that demonstrated the profound historical significance of the 8,000-year-old Chumash trail network.”

The profound historical significance of other issues should also be taken into account when naming our public resources.

That 8,000-year-old Chumash trail network cuts through the Los Padres National Forest.

Do you think something else besides a footpath may be of profound historical significance here?

In 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act was passed which barred Asian immigrants from the United States. The law was sometimes referred to as the Japanese exclusion act and it served as a resounding victory for the anti-Japanese movement in California at the time.

Roger Daniels The Politics of Prejudice: The Anti-Japanese Movement in California and the Struggle for Japanese Exclusion 

Around the same time period Los Padres National Forest was named twelve years later, segregation was matter of course, the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses in California with the Klan openly demonstrating in costume and marching in rallies in Washington D.C. and it would not have been unlikely to see the same in Santa Barbara.

The naming of the forest was a product of its era and popular national sentiment of the time.

Judging the past by today’s mores and social norms can be a mistake.

And sometimes history is so muddled as to be impossible. Thomas Jefferson owned many slaves, but how can we possibly rid ourselves of the Declaration of Independence that he authored?

But, perhaps now it is time to reconsider the name of our forest all these years later after so much has changed. Even the Supreme Court changes its mind now and again.

In 1992, the United States honored the Chumash with a wilderness in their name. The Chumash Wilderness lies within the bounds of a national forest named in tribute to the marauding religio-racial supremacists whose plunder was found in the form of native bodies, and who enslaved and killed their kinfolk and tried to erase their culture from existence.

Think about that.

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Petroglyph, Santa Ynez Mountains

“The symbols of shamans were potentially dangerous because of their material spirituality connecting them to the sacred…The vulva itself was considered unusually perilous. For example, a Northern Paiute account indicates that the worst from of sorcery a man could endure was a twitching vulva during intercourse: Female orgasm was thought to represent uncontrolled sexual, and therefore supernatural, power. Similarly, even the sight of a vulva could pose a particularly dangerous circumstance…The vulva, a potent and dangerous object, was an appropriate shamanistic symbol for supernatural power, perhaps pertaining to sorcery.”

David S. Whitley A Guide to Rock Art Sites: Southern California and Southern Nevada (1996)

A client of my wife’s discovered this petroglyph about two years ago. We believe it was previously unknown about in contemporary times, as the folks at Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History were unaware of its existence when notified.

It is thought that the artifact was revealed after the torrential rains that followed the Thomas Fire and which caused the deadly Montecito Debris Flow.

When I first saw the petroglyph I was surprised by its size. It’s no small piece of work.

I was also struck right off by how unusual it is relative everything else I have ever seen in Santa Barbara County with respect to Chumash rock art and petroglyphs in particular.

Has anybody out there ever seen a petroglyph like this around this neck of the woods? I’m not asking for location information, just curious if something else like this exists out there in the county.

I consulted a professional expert on the matter who visited the site shortly after it was discovered and it is not known if this is the work of a Chumash individual in prehistoric times or of it was crafted by somebody much later in modern times, Chumash or otherwise.

Interpretations of the rock art include a possible whale or a vulva-form motif.

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Honeysuckle in the Highlands

Honeysuckle in the woods of Scotland.

“Wherever there is suddenly more light, flowering plants also try their luck, including honeysuckle. Using its tendrils, it makes its way up around the little trunks, always twining in a clockwise direction. By coiling itself around the trunk, it can keep up with the growth of the young tree and its flowers can bask in the sun.

However, as the years progress, the coiling vine cuts into the expanding bark and slowly strangles the little tree. Now it is a question of timing: Will the canopy formed by the old trees close soon and plunge the little tree into darkness once again?

If it does, the honeysuckle will wither away, leaving only scars. But if there is plenty of light for awhile longer, perhaps because the dying mother tree was particularly large and so left a correspondingly large gap [when it fell], then the young tree in the honeysuckle’s embrace can be smothered.

Its untimely end, though unfortunate for the tree, brings us some pleasure when we craft its bizarrely twisted wood into walking sticks.”

—Peter Wohlleben The Hidden Life of Trees

We stayed in an old stone cottage beside Dubh Lochan and along Loch Lomond in the Trossachs National Park in Scotland. See the place here. The jet lag was horrendous. I lurched about the small, stout little Goldilocks home between the bedroom, living room couch and the glass conservatory outside and did nothing but try to sleep, try to stay awake, eat, drink and read for seven days.

In desperate need of a huge bag of cocaine and a pallet of Rip It energy drinks, but having to settle for pre-ground coffee, I set the kettle on the gas range and stumbled back into the living room and fell upon the couch before the hearth.

When I managed to muster the wherewithal to make it back to the kitchen plumes of black smoke were billowing from the plastic-bottomed electric kettle that sat aflame atop the gas stove.

Ahhhh! What the ****! Holy ****!

Fumbling about I managed to find something or other with which to fling the toxic flaming wreck out the back door onto the brick patio.

Later we purchased a replacement at Marks and Spencer. The owners gladly accepted the new kettle, and then deducted the cost for yet another one from our security deposit.

I made cowboy coffee instead. Pot. Boiling water. Coffee. Let it set. Pour it off the top. No need to confuse things and get fancy.

I read some mediocre forgettable fiction written by freshly published, highly educated authors with expensive degrees from world renowned universities. And I had along with me non-fiction including Wohlleben’s incredible little revelatory book about trees.

Between suffering the ravages of jet lag and reading his book I went for long walks down the small lane that ran along the lake out front and I wandered into and through the woods that surrounded our cottage eating wild berries and getting riddled like a pin cushion by swarms of the devilish wee highland midges.

One day in the midst of this tortuous delirium, seeking respite in the cool and moist woods so vastly different from the dry hot slopes of my natal land, I stumbled across this here honeysuckle vine just as I had read about it in Wohlleben’s book.

Related Post:

The Mighty Chanterelle and the Gnarly Oak

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