Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Before the Wilderness

I've mentioned the book before, but now I'm actually reading it. "Before the Wilderness," compiled and edited by Thomas C. Blackburn and Kat Anderson, is a collection of scientific papers and essays about how native Californians managed the land and how their management altered California and promoted diversity.

While there is much to learn in the book about all parts of California, I've narrowed in on my part, namely, the redwood region, home of a few peoples including the Wiyot and Yurok.

Here are some of the things I'm finding noteworthy (most of it around p. 100):

  • Unlike most of CA, tribes of the redwoods relied more on salmon than on agriculture.

  • The redwood forest was (and still is, I might add) impenetrable in parts because of massive logs and thickets.. But the natives kept some areas open by burning. And maintained paths connecting these areas. They were also careful about not getting lost in the forest.

  • At least one record showed that these open prairies were incredibly valuable for food. Plants with edible seed, such as Wyethia longicaulis, were concentrated in these areas. (I remember seeing swards of Wyethia along the roadside while I was driving to Petrolia. I don’t know what species this was, but this makes me want to collect seed and add it to my coastal prairie). Another account says that these open areas were covered with shrubs, wild oats, edible bulb plants, and clover (springbank clover probably). The largest of these areas were .25 mile by about .75 mile long, and most were much smaller. These areas were frequented by elk and deer too. It’s cool because by maintaining these open patches, elk and deer were drawn to these patches for good forage. So the food came to them.

  • Jepson (CA botanist mostly responsible for the Jepson Manual) once said that “There is today more wooded area in Humboldt County than when the white man came over a half century since.” And that is the case because of fire supression.

  • "In almost every case aboriginal subsistence involved hunting and gathering in two or more vegetational belts." Edges are where you'll find the most diversity, and I guess the most humans.

  • Large scale burning, in contrast to patch burning, reduces the total amount of plant and animal production.

  • There were, on average, 3-5 people per square mile where I now live.

  • Some native people cut the caps off of mushrooms, leaving the “stems behind.” Anderson says that this leaves the mycelia intact, ensuring future production.

  • Soaproot is more abundant in areas where it is cultivated. Cultivation can be a valuable tool for conservation.

  • “There is a common feeling among elders that plants want to be used,” says Anderson.

  • “Karok and Wiyot burned to make hazel and willows grow better for manufacturing baskets.”

  • One way to burn an individual coppice stool is to cover it with leaves and set the pile on fire. I wonder if this helps keep out pathogens from eating at the stool. I know one technique of preserving wood posts is to lightly burn the ends.

  • Fire is good for huckleberry production (because the shrubs resprout with vigor?)

That's all for now. I recommend the book to anyone interested in native american culture, California, and land management.


Bob Zybach said...


Kat Anderson's book Tending the Wild should be on your must read now list. You will learn a lot about people and plants ancestral to your area and State.

Frank Lake is a USFS scientist and a Karok Indian born and raised in your area. He recently finished his PhD work at Oregon State University regarding plan, fire, and trail use by he Karok and their neighbors in precontact time. I'd highly recommend Frank's dissertation, too.

Good luck!

Gardener of La Mancha said...

Thanks Bob,
I've requested Tending the Wild at my local library, and it should be in soon. I'm still trying to find the dissertation. I really appreciate the info.

mmw said...

This sounds like an very interesting book. I don't really think about fire regimes in the redwood forest like I do in chaparral, but I guess everything burns.

BTW I found Frank Lake's dissertation here.

Gardener of La Mancha said...

MMW, well fire definetely played a larger role in oak woodlands and chaparal. It's not surprising that there aren't (according to the book) any plants in the redwoods that actually need fire (lightning strikes are rare here and it's so moist). But if plants need people, like the elders say, maybe plants kind of appreciate the fires. Thanks so much for the link. I'll start reading.