Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources
by M. Kat Anderson
University of California Press, 2006
When the early European explorers and settlers came to California, they found a ravishing land, teeming with abundance. The hills, valleys and plains were filled with elk, deer, antelope, hare, rabbit and quail. Bear and mountain lion abounded. The sea shores were crowded with seal and otter. The skies were congested with birds, sometimes so thick they blocked out the sun. One observer noted that flocks of white geese covered an area of four square miles when they landed. The lakes and rivers were swarming with salmon, trout and other fish, their beds and banks covered with mussels, clams and other shellfish. Shrimp thronged the San Francisco bay!
Early observers were even more impressed with the profusion of California’s varied flora. The forests yielded pine nuts and pine sugar; California’s massive oaks produced prodigious amounts of acorns; the prairies and meadows were covered with wildflowers, many times of just one species, creating a mass of color for hundreds of acres. Carefully tended mesquite trees yielded bushels of pods with just a few hours of gathering. Vast wetland regions yielded yampahs— an edible potato-like tuber. Even more amazing, the landscapes seemed magically clear of brush—oak trees grew in sprawling savannas. The Yosemite Valley was clear of undergrowth, so that you could see from one end of it to the other.
The Europeans assumed that they had discovered an untouched wilderness that just happened to resemble a garden, populated by “primitive” Indian tribes who profited from Nature’s bounty simply by hunting and gathering. But in fact, California was not so much a wilderness as a true garden, a garden of beauty and abundance because it had been tended for thousands of years by wise guardians. For untold generations, the California Indians had shaped the landscape by pruning, coppicing, cultivating, transplanting, weeding, selecting cultivars—and above all by controlled burning.
Controlled burning served as the main tool for creating California’s garden-like landscape. Through periodic burning, the Indians cleared brush under trees and enlarged meadows and prairies. Burning broke down dry vegetation, returning nutrients to the soil—everything grew better after a burn, the Indians told the white man. Burning under the oak trees eliminated insects— without burning every year or two under the oaks, the acorns became infested with pests. Burning encouraged straight suckers to come up from bulrushes and small trees, supplying material for basket making. Burning encouraged certain useful species above others. Burning could be used to corral wildlife—masses of grasshoppers moving ahead of controlled burns, for example, provided nutritious and easily gathered morsels for the Indians. Above all, frequent small fires prevented the buildup of brush that could fuel the occasional catastrophic fire. Whereas controlled burning helped to preserve trees and encouraged them to grow, uncontrolled fire could wipe out forests and therefore the food supply.
Californian Indians were not alone in using fire to eliminate brush and encourage abundance—the practice is found in Africa and Australia, and it is safe to assume that it was universal among Paleolithic cultures. We are therefore justified in proposing the theory that prairies with their rich soil and abundant grasses are as much an artifact of human fire practices as of ungulate disturbance—burning created a habitat for elk, antelope and buffalo, for clearing land to support vast herds that further kept brush at bay with the action of their hooves once man had created the open lands for them.
The Indians saw their role as guardians of Nature, agents for improving Nature’s appearance and increasing her abundance; the plants and animals were their relatives, to be supported and cared for, just like human relatives. By contrast, the Europeans viewed Nature as something outside—unpredictable and often dangerous; Nature was there for exploitation or, in the case of naturalists like John Muir, to be left “pristine” and untouched. Interestingly, modern Indians often use the word “wilderness” as a negative label for land that humans have not taken care of for a long time, a land where dense understory shrubbery or thickets of young trees block visibility and movement. Indeed, this is exactly what happened in Yosemite Valley when the white man took over. The valley became filled with brush and the beautiful vistas through the oak trees disappeared. The Indians believed that a hands-off approach to nature—above all the prohibition on controlled burning—promoted wild and rank landscapes that were inhospitable to life. “The white man sure ruined this country,” said James Rust, a Southern Sierra Miwok elder. “It’s turned back to wilderness.”
Author M. Kat Anderson dispels many myths about Paleolithic peoples, not only the myth that these people merely gathered food, but also the myth that Stone Age cultures did not consume many carbohydrate-rich plant foods. Yampahs and other tubers were mainstays of the Indian diet; easy to store, they were cooked in oven pits to accompany fish and game. And a most interesting revelation in Tending the Wild is the widespread use of grain in the California Indian diet. Wild rye, wheat and oats grew in abundance in California’s fire-managed prairies. Grass seeds were gathered with wicker seed beaters into large baskets—so abundant were wild grains in some places that many bushels could be gathered within hours. The grains were winnowed and sifted with special baskets, ground on flat rocks, roasted and made into gruels and cakes. The seeds of wild flowers were also gathered and consumed as staples, particularly the chia seed. Gathering methods always dispersed some seeds, enlarging the area of cultivation and increasing yield over the years. It’s a myth that the so-called Paleolithic diet contained no grains.
Tending the Wild is to native agricultural ways what Nutrition and Physical Degeneration is to native foodways. Anderson comes as a missionary from the primitive peoples to teach contemporary man their wise methods of tending the plant world, just as Price came as a missionary from the primitive peoples to teach us their vital knowledge about healthy diets. Fortunately, a few people are listening. Some of the national parks are now working with native Californians to re-establish programs of controlled burning, seed selection, tuber cultivation and other methods that once made California so abundant and beautiful.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2012.