Interview of Laura Cunningham ― Resistance Radio

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Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Laura Cunningham. She is an artist-naturalist, author, and biologist, who also co-founded a conservation organization, Basin and Range Watch, that works towards saving the California and Nevada deserts. She is the author/illustrator of the extraordinary book A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California

So first, thank you for your really important work, and second, thank you for being on the program.

LC: Well, thank you very much.

DJ: So, I know this is an unfair and huge question, but what was California like prior to conquest? It’s unfair because California’s so huge.

LC: That’s part of the fascinating thing about California. It’s so diverse, and has so many different land forms and biotic communities. It did take me about 20 years just to try to get a handle on it. From the Sierra Nevadas, the sagebrush Modoc plateau, the Great Central Valley, the coast, and then down to the deserts. So I guess what I came away with, after a lot of research, a lot of travel, camping in remote areas, trying to find those little relict native grasslands, or evidence of what tribal people had done in the past. I guess what I came away with was, wow. There was a lot of just abundance of animals, plants. I mean, the variety was stunning just everywhere. Even where I’m living now. I’m in the Mojave Desert just right over the border from California and Nevada. But I’ve talked to biologists who lived in places like Ridgecrest, California, in the Mojave Desert, and decades and decades ago, when they were children, they’d walk out and see desert tortoises just roaming about in the warm spring, with wildflowers blooming, and they’d go out and there’d be herds of these dome-shaped shells, slowly moving across the creosote flats. And there are estimates that there could have been maybe 100-200 per acre (mile, as per later correction) . Now they’re down to – an abundant part of the desert for tortoises now might have 10 per acre. That’s like a high number. There may be 1-2 per acre, and great stretches of the desert have no tortoises left.

For the same story, you could go to the Central Valley, like around Sacramento or San Joaquin area. People would report in the late 1800’s a herd of 1000 tule elk in the native grasslands and marshes, around the rivers. And then apparently the San Joaquin Valley, which was partly a desert, and then partly gigantic pluvial lakes from Sierra meltoff. Part of San Joaquin Valley might have had the densest population of pronghorn antelope in the world, perhaps. Definitely in California, possibly in the country. They just really liked those vast saltbush flats, and barren, to us it would look like a wasteland, but they love these little annual wildflowers and native annual grasses, and they were just thriving in that kind of landscape. Every habitat, every part of California had some sort of abundance. I haven’t even touched upon the salmon. There of course may be exaggerations, but there are some eyewitnesses, again, around 1900, where people would go to Carquinez Strait, which is this gap in the coast range where the combined flow of the Sacramento and the San Joaquin Rivers, the whole drainage of the entire Sierra Nevada would squeeze through this gap, Carquinez Strait, into the San Francisco Bay and out to the Pacific. And at certain times of year there would be massive salmon crowding through this on their migrations up to their spawning waters, the headwaters of rivers. And apparently you could have seen the backs of salmon just crushing together in this strait.

And people would joke “Well, you could have walked right across it for 3/4 of a mile, on the backs of salmon.” And I’m sure that’s an exaggeration, but it gives kind of an image that probably wasn’t too far off the path. Some of the Chinook salmon were four feet long. So just image after image, I encountered in my researches of California history, talking to some of the elders of different cultures who saw the last vestiges of that.

So that’s kind of in a nutshell some of the abundance I’ve found from California. It matches so much of the rest of the country, too. The incredible bison herds in the Great Plains. Passenger pigeons in the east. There definitely was a pattern that emerged from my research: less people, more wildlife.

DJ: A couple of things. One of them is that I live about 20 miles north of the Klamath, and there are accounts, even as late as the 30’s, of the Klamath being “black and roiling.” And the Klamath’s the second-biggest river flowing into the Pacific Ocean in the United States, after the Columbia. So it’s a pretty big river. And there are accounts of it being “black and roiling” with fish. And I used to think, like you, “Yeah, are they exaggerations?” And then somebody, gosh, 12-13 years ago, sent me a photograph of a river up in Alaska that at the time still had a lot of salmon. The picture was interesting, because if you look at it you can’t see much at first, and then you see like little bits of yellow at the edge of the river, and then you realize that the black that you see in the middle is all fish, and the reason that you can’t see the bottom is that the fish are packed in except for little bits to the side where they don’t quite go up. So I’ve actually seen a picture, and I have that picture on my wall, or on my bookshelf, and I look at it and it is one of the things that inspires me.

LC: That brings up a point that I keep coming to over and over too, is the lack of – the forgetfulness. The lack of oral tradition that our current society has. As if some of these scenes of abundant wildlife never existed. And I know tribal cultures have a very long oral tradition, but our current culture seems to have a very short memory. And what’s gone is gone and people can’t even believe that we’ve had abundance like that. And I’ve seen little bits and relics of it. One example is, I was mentioning the desert tortoise, which, now when you drive to the desert or hike to the desert, you’re always surprised to see a tortoise. It’s an amazing sight, and you stop and admire this federally threatened species.

I had an opportunity around 2005 to go, it was like a contract wildlife biology job on a military base. It was actually in Nevada, at the Nellis Air Force Base, the Nevada Test and Training Range north of Las Vegas. And my job simply was to move desert tortoises out of harm’s way from a military target that was being built to be live fire bombed. And I thought this would be a pretty bad job, but as I discovered, it’s an air force base, they only really disturb this one playa, and the number of tortoises there was fabulous. I felt like I was going back into time. It’s ironic, because it’s a military base and I’m a pacifist. But the area was closed off to all population. No wild dogs, no trash that subsidizes ravens, that often take baby tortoises. Disease of the tortoise was nonexistent. So everywhere I walked, through this relatively pristine Mojave Desert, I’d see tracks of tortoises. And every day I’d find tortoises that I’d have to move. And I found nests of tortoises that I’d have to try to protect from this small development, the target.

So it actually gave me a sense of “Here it is, I’m seeing the past.” This little island of a military base was like a cutout of a past scene. And it really is. If you don’t disturb the desert and sort of leave it be, because the military actually voluntarily hired people like me to manage the tortoises out there. Basically they had just not managed them. And because of the nature of the use of the land, they were left to their own devices and thriving. That was just one example of how you can see the past in certain little relict areas.

DJ: Imagine that, nonhumans being able to take care of themselves.

So I’m going to go back for a moment to this idea of 100 tortoises per acre. Was that what you said?

LC: Yeah.

DJ: A long time ago. So this is desert territory, right? So this is not like forest, where you wouldn’t be able to se them. I lived in Nevada for awhile and I know if you have 100 acres there and you have a bunch of beings on them you can see them. The point is you would actually see a shedload of tortoises at one place. I’m trying to picture this.

Kids go out and play, you know, when they’re seven years old and they’re out playing tag or something out there. It sounds almost like there’s a chance they could stumble over a tortoise. This strikes me as both heartbreaking and beautiful.

LC: Right. I actually misspoke. It is a hundred tortoises per square mile.

DJ: Oh, okay.

LC: But that’s still very dense. If you were a kid walking out in the spring, yeah, you’d … there are images where I’ve talked to some people who lived in Ridgecrest and they’re currently tortoise biologists, and they said that as a child they’d walk out and they’d just see a tortoise maybe every 100 feet. You could see several in your line of view, in the creosote. And to stumble upon that many, just on a walk, as a child outside of your town, is so rare now. Only inside of fully-protected military bases.

DJ: So before we talk about the importance of remembering, I want to ask you to talk for a moment about grizzly bears. There currently is one on the state flag, and there are some in zoos, but other than that, grizzly bears are not in California. Such was not always the case.

LC: That’s another interesting case of almost a total forgetfulness of what California was like in the past. We associate grizzlies with Alaska and Yellowstone National Park now. Even I had difficulty trying to picture what it was like walking around or hiking in the hills in the coast range. I grew up in the Berkeley area of San Francisco Bay and I just couldn’t imagine the oaks grass hills with large grizzlies roaming around them. So I took off for two weeks and camped in Yellowstone National Park, which was the closest area where I could get that feel of the past. And it was very different. I mean, it was of course slightly dangerous. We were told by the park rangers that you can’t just leave your food out on picnic tables in the campground. I just had a tent. And you had to seal them up in your car or special boxes. And I joined a group of bear watchers, which was something like bird watching. We had our spotting scopes along the roadsides and we would just wait in the early morning and scan the hills for grizzlies. And sure enough, they’d come into view and all sorts of fascinating behavior could be seen. Mothers with cubs and giant males roaming about. And sometimes they’d be sniffing the sagebrush areas, looking for elk calves.

But it was a very different feel to the land, to have these extremely large carnivores roaming around, and you had to very much think about “Well, if I take a hike on that trail, I’d better be bear aware.” Or if I just camp in my tent. You’ve got to be a little bit careful. So coming back to California it was fascinating to read all the historical accounts of the abundance. They were very common, abundant grizzlies all over California. Apparently they must have had a very high genetic diversity, because in some areas they were smaller, such as the northern forests. But in southern California, around Los Angeles, they were gigantic. Some of the measured specimens that were hunted, or the skins – they were as large as brown bears in Alaska. And that’s probably because they had a warm mild winter. Some of them didn’t hibernate because they didn’t need to. No snow. And they had abundant acorns to feast on and steelhead trout in the streams and berries in the chaparral. So it was very interesting to see that had been completely erased.

And another thing I thought was interesting about grizzlies in California was they were probably pretty much keystone species, meaning they were important for other species and for somewhat shaping plant communities. Grizzlies have these giant six inch claws that are actually used for digging. They’re quite into digging up wild onion bulbs and digging up gophers. They probably actually started to shape certain parts of the California prairie. They probably feasted on salmon, and I’ve read some research about bears in other parts of Alaska dragging carcasses of salmon that they’re feasting on far into the forest. And that actually adds nutrients to parts of the forest.

So now, when you don’t have bears, the salmon don’t reach those distant parts of the watershed. So just things like that. I think that grizzly bears were probably very significant in the ecology of many different California plant communities, and their being erased is still somewhat fascinating to me, that we just – as you say, they’re on the flag, and we barely give it a second thought, that California had very large bears roaming almost everywhere. Into the edges of the desert and far up into the Sierra Nevada, and definitely along the coast where the population centers are now.

DJ: And we always think of grizzly bears as essentially solitary, but I’ve seen numerous references that use the word “troupes.” And I’m going to quote something from your book.

“The Spanish explorer Pedro Fages, a few miles west of San Luis Obispo in the summer of 1769 noted ‘In the canyon, we’re seeing whole troupes of bears.’” Troupes! Troupes of grizzy bears! Whole troupes of bears. “‘They had the ground all plowed up from digging in it to find their sustenance in the roots which the land produces.’”

And that’s not the only account, like I said, that has used the word “troupes.” I’ve heard of; there were so many whales in the ocean that they would die just of natural causes and wash up on shore, and then, again, troupes of grizzly bears would eat the dead whales. And then I was reading this account. I don’t remember whether this was in your book or somewhere else. I was reading this account of somebody living in the Sierra Nevadas and they would say it would be routine – this is 1840’s, 1850’s – it would be routine to see a troupe of grizzly bears just sort of ambling down Main Street. They were incredibly common. Obviously humans inhabited California and grizzly bears did, and it is quite possible for humans and grizzly bears to coexist, as they did for thousands of years.

LC: It’s interesting that even today some wildlife biologists studied the troupes of grizzlies they see on occasion in areas where they’re still around, and they note that it’s often because of a concentration of resource abundance. Some sort of food is attracting the grizzlies, whether it’s moths in the whitebark pine or a whale being beached. Once again we’re coming back to the abundant resources. And I hate that word, “resource.” That’s what we use now in land management. But the indication of the abundance of food and fresh water and complete large landscapes that are not disturbed or fragmented. This is what they mean by “abundant resources.” In that, there were dense concentrations of food for grizzlies, attracting these numbers that would come together. And I bet there’s grizzly behavior in the past in California, the likes of which we don’t even see today. Perhaps in parts of Alaska.

The native tribes, too, were taking their own resources, too. Hunting, fishing, gathering acorns and grass seeds. They were living together with all these herds of elk and grizzlies and salmon. And that’s not meaning to paint any sort of picture of idealistic society in the past. But it is comforting to know that humans can live in a world of abundant resources and not have everything go extinct like we’re having today.

DJ: So I’m just going to grab a couple of random places from your book. Just literally going to open the book to some pages and read out a couple of lines from each one. “At Putah Creek, herons nested by the hundreds. A rookery west of Gridley had 600 great blue heron and great egret nests but was completely cut down in the 1950’s.” I can’t imagine seeing 600 great blue heron nests in one spot.

Okay, another random place. “‘At once,’” Juan Crespie described Point Arguello north of Santa Barbara, ‘at once after setting out we commenced to find that fields all abloom with different kinds of wildflowers of all colors, so that as many were the wildflowers we had been meeting along the way in the channel, it was not in such plenty as here, for it’s all one mass of blossom. Great quantities of white, yellow, red, purple and blue ones. Many yellow violets,’” blah blah blah.

This is one of the things I love about your book. And it reminds me quite a bit of Farley Mowat’s book Sea of Slaughter, which is about the abundance that was here all across the continent. Or I read this extraordinary book a couple of years ago called A Country So Full of Game, which was about Iowa of all places. And I know it sounds dismissive of me to say “of all places,” but Iowa was once one of the most biodiverse places, before corn got there, and before industrial agriculture. It was incredibly biodiverse in Iowa, because it was sort of at the edge between the eastern forest and the Great Plains. No matter where we look, and no matter where we look in your book or on this continent, we hear the same stories.

I spent a little bit of time in Orosi, back when I was a beekeeper, and one of the local people, I don’t know if this is true but he told me that the town was named because when the first Spanish explorers got there all the wildflowers were gold, so it was “oro si,” “yes, this is gold here.” They didn’t mean gold the mineral. They meant gold the wildflower.

I’m just overwhelmed by what was, and what should be. I guess the next question is finally to come back to why is this important to remember? I don’t mean to put you on the spot with your book, but why is your book so important? What is so important about this remembering?

LC: That’s a great question, and I’ve given about I’d say 100 book talks to the public now, since the publishing in 2010. And I would get that question more than I expected, about why do we even care about this? Which surprised me. And I even had at one time – I was in San Francisco and a man came up to me and was actually slightly hostile. And he looked at my book and said “What, are you trying to bring this back? Should we destroy civilization to bring all these elk and salmon back?” Like, he was somewhat afraid of the idea that California could have a past like this.

Idealistically, I wish I had a time machine and could go and live in the past. But I’m a realist and I told him “Well this is history. This is our heritage of the state. And if I lived in Europe I probably would be studying the ancient Roman ruins to understand the past, to understand the course of history. So having lived in California all my life, I wanted to understand why is California the way it is now? And the only way you can do that is to understand how it was 1000 years ago.”

I went on with this line of discussion and he actually lightened up, and he thought that was a good answer to why we should study the past. But it’s interesting how many people don’t even think California has a past. I know there’s a disturbing trend lately, even among my environmental colleagues, erasing the past of people, too. Like, there were no Native Americans, they weren’t doing anything in the land. Recent stories have come up with the big wildfires, the Thomas Fire, the Santa Rosa fire. There’s been a lot of discussion in media about how, “well there were no fires in the past.” Or there were no people managing the land for thousands of years.

Because the native people in California were very fire oriented. They used fire as a management tool to manage their own resources. I’m going to describe it just how we in our culture manage our resources. They did fire management, and that actually did reduce a lot of fuel around their villages and in their food collecting areas. They sometimes used fire to burn shrubs, chaparral shrubs so that the new leader sticks would grow out very straight. Some of these shrubs would stump sprout. Then they’d come and collect these very straight new stems, after a burn, and they were used for basketry and arrows and just a host of things.

But lately I’ve noticed that this whole past of tribal people managing California has been a little bit forgotten and erased. We’re talking now about how to reduce wildfires that destroy houses in a very different way. It’s again, I keep coming back to the theme of the forgetfulness of our society, our civilization.

DJ: A couple of things. One of them is I read someone who said that yes of course everybody affects their surroundings. But one of the big differences is that the Indians were planning on living in place for the next 500 years. And if you’re planning on living in place for the next 500 years, your land management decisions will be vastly different than if you’re not thinking that far into the future. And of course, in order to make decisions that will make it so you can thrive on the land in 500 years, you have to know what has worked for the last 500 years. You can’t manage into the future without understanding the deep past. Does that make sense?

LC: That’s very well said. If we had a bit of a deeper memory, like tribal people often do, we wouldn’t be building towns in the flood plain of a river, say. I can’t believe we still do this. The 100 year flood comes and floods everyone out. Or we’re building houses in a fire-adapted plant community, such as chaparral, because apparently we’re like a society that insists on reinventing the wheel every generation, every year. And the past doesn’t exist. So I kind of see this as a problem of, like you say, it’s very short term land management. Very profit driven, short term, not really thinking about the future.

DJ: Before we move on, there’s one more random page that I opened to that I want to mention, which is that there were estimates of about a million coho salmon in California, and current estimates are about five thousand or less. This, again, is a story we can tell, whether it’s desert tortoises or Columbia River salmon, who are at two percent of their previous population. Prairie dogs. It doesn’t matter.

Another thing I keep thinking about as we’re talking here, and as I read your book, is the line by Milon Kundera about how the struggle against oppression is the struggle of memory against forgetting. You can take any of those in any direction you want.

LC: That’s a very good quote. Because I think we are, when we forget, or we consider the natural abundance of California, which, unlike ancient Rome, we had a very natural past with people who were pretty light on the land, for building. But they did manage with fire. I’ve heard it called “firestick farming.” And to forget this I think is a danger. You know, I just was reading an article by the famous biologist E.O. Wilson, about the half earth goal, where he would want to have half of the earth in a natural state. And I was thinking about: Could we ever do that for California? Have half of California not farmed, not grazed by cattle, not full of roads. It’s an interesting idea. That would be the direction I’d like to see California go is to try to go back to some of that very healthy abundance. Free of pollution.

I don’t think that will be very easy, but that’s sort of a goal I had in writing the book. The first step is “Well, what was it like?” There are a lot of random essays and some historical accounts scattered all through libraries. I just thought it would be really great to get this all in one place, to see what California was like during roughly the last ten thousand years. And then maybe begin to see how you could push it towards that healthy type of rich diversity into the future.
And it’s interesting, the roadblocks that come up. I have a story of my sister, who lives in Richmond, in the Bay area, took some of my chapters on native grasslands. Native grasslands were just abundant all over the state, especially in the coast ranges and the valleys, where now there’s a lot of replacement by European annual wild oats and brome grasses, brought in by some of the Spanish missionaries as long ago as the 1700’s. But she wanted to take her little suburban front yard in the Bay area and restore it into a native grassland, a little patch. We’re talking not even a quarter acre here, along the sidewalk.

And she did a really nice job. She gathered local seeds of purple needlegrass and a lot of the cecelias and poppies and other flowers. And she seeded the area diligently, pulled out all the weeds. And after a couple of years it was this beautiful patch of native bunchgrasses. And then one day she got a knock on the door, and it was the City of Richmond, and they said “Well, you’ve got to cut down these weeds. We’re getting complaints from the neighbors about your weeds.” So she actually wrote back and kind of fought the city, and said – and I told her “Why don’t you cut down the tall stems of the needlegrasses, and it will imitate like an elk herd moving through and grazing it.” So she managed it in a cyclic way to sort of trim it here and there. She started an educational campaign on her street to get the neighbors to say “Well, you know you too can plant native flowers. Yes, they’ll dry out in the summer, but you never need to water. You don’t have to have this water bill from watering a lawn.”

And so she actually won out over the county. She put up signs saying “This is wildlife habitat.” Native bees, butterflies. And she has a whole group now in her block, her neighborhood, that has a club doing native plant restoration in their yards. So that was a really nice little tiny story of how you could maybe seed some of these thoughts into the future.

DJ: That’s great. That brings tears to my eyes. That’s wonderful. Please thank your sister.

LC: I will. Thank you.

DJ: I would love to see, as well as obviously loving to see the grizzlies back and loving to see wolves back and coho salmon back and the real world back; in the meantime, something I would love to see is a project like you did for California done for all sorts of biomes. I would love to see, like I said that book on Iowa was great. I would love to see the same thing for the Delta forest in Mississippi. I would love to see the same thing for West Texas. It doesn’t matter. And I would love to see that for, going further back, like the cradle of civilization. I would love to see – I’ve read accounts – before civilization arose, Iraq was cedar forests so thick that sunlight never reached the ground. And I would love to know what England was like, or France was like. And so my question is: can you talk about the process of assembling this, and what I want for both of us to do here is to try to prod people in other places to do the exact same thing for, y’know, Queensland or Tasmania or wherever the person who hears this may be. How did you actually construct the book? What would they have to do? How would they get off their butt and start doing it and what would they do?

LC: That brings to mind; I thought another great project and book would be the entire Great Plains, and the prairie into Iowa. What an interesting project that would be. I’ve had thoughts of trying to do that, but it’s pretty distant and far and I got involved in other books.

The process was actually really fun, because it involved traveling to both well-known and little-known parts of the landscape. And it starts in your neighborhood. It can even start walking down the street. You see an empty lot, say, in your neighborhood that has weeds, but if you go look more closely in that little patch of open ground, sometimes you find, like, a California poppy. And I’ve even found a couple of species of native grasses in the middle of the East Bay on an empty lot. Apparently it was one of the last unplowed pieces of dirt there.

So you can start very simply walking around in your own neighborhood and then branch out and enlarge your radius to other areas.

Parks are often really good, I hate to use the word “museums” because nature’s always changing. But they can have a lot of relict habitats. Public lands, national forests, national parks. But another parallel to that is a lot of – in my day, it was going into libraries and scanning the shelves for books on history. Now you can do that online so easily.

Just a lot of reading of history, historical accounts. There are some gems of history out there. Even back into the 1700’s; you’ve read one of the accounts by (Juan) Crespi describing what he saw in the late 1700’s. And it’s very, I hate to say accurate, but to me it has an accuracy to it. He was very good at observing nature. And I’ve even gone to some of the places that the early Spanish missionaries stopped and found some of the things that they saw, like giant grasses around Santa Barbara that were as tall as a man and a horse. And you can actually go find those still.

So going outside is, I think, the number one important thing, and actually looking, with your own eyes, taking notebooks, camera, make sketches. I mean, I have dozens and dozens of just little landscape sketches where I try to list the plants I see, and the birds. Most of those didn’t make it into the book, but I have shelves just full of sketchbooks and notebooks. And then library research, and going and looking at old maps and photographs. Like, for instance, San Francisco Estuary Institute has an exquisite collection of old maps, and they’ve digitized a lot of these and actually put them on their website. And they’re fascinating to see, old maps drawn I think for navigation purposes, of San Francisco Bay. And they just show all the intricate bays and sloughs and channels and things that have been covered over now with freeways and landfill. But old maps are just gems.

And even old paintings of early California, that can be an interesting source of information. And then also going and talking with some of the elders. Because it’s amazing how this is not too far back in time, in our continent here. There are people who have seen some of these things that are now gone. Whether it’s a – I’ve talked to people, for instance, who have seen a valley before a dam was built and the area was flooded for a reservoir. So I was able to pick their mind about, you know, you can solicit really good information from people’s memories still to this day, about “what trees did you see in that basin before it was flooded?” And talking to Native Americans about how they used fire. That’s just extremely important information too. So those are some of the ways I did the book, and of course being an artist, quite a lot of the material was for me to go to a spot, often a city, and I had grand plans to do every major city in California. The publisher quickly told me “Well, this book’s gotta be cut off at a certain point,” though. I didn’t get to do every city. But I would go to a spot, take a picture, or a panorama, and then try to reconstruct that exact scene in a painting of, say, how it would look 500 years ago, using all of this research, the best available science on what plant communities were there, what distribution of elk. Because, for instance, elk weren’t in the L.A. Basin. They were more north.

So some of the better science and biology available, historical accounts. Some my paintings even reconstruct historical accounts, such as, I think it was the 1860’s in Monterey Bay; a beached gray whale was lying there and some of the people actually observed one of those troupes of grizzlies gnawing on it. They’d actually eaten a hole into the side of the whale and the grizzlies were going inside the whale to eat it from the inside out. So I painted that.

So, because we don’t have cameras to go back in time, I think art is a really nice way to do that. But I notice you don’t even need to be an artist. There’s a project for, I think it’s called Mannahatta, and it’s a digital mapping project to try to reconstruct Manhattan Island in New York as to what it was like.

Welikia Map

So you don’t even need art. You can use digital resources and make maps, which I think is really fascinating too, to see how completely different a place like New York City was in map form from what it is today.

So those are the main lines of methods I used for reconstructing landscapes, and they can be used anywhere in the world.

DJ: I think that’s really helpful, and if anybody’s sort of thinking about doing this, can you say something to encourage them to get off their butts and do it? Because I think the big thing is for – I’ve known so many people who had talent for this or that, but they just didn’t ever get off the dime in the first place. So how can you just give somebody a little push to get them started? Say they live in Kansas and they want to do a reconstruction of what Kansas was like. Kick them in the butt.

LC: (laughs) Kansas would be fantastic. I think one of the things it does is surprises you to see how amazing your place was, your landscape. Or your state. Kansas, I’m sure, had the most amazing herds of bison moving through it. Giant prairie wolves. You’ll learn things that will surprise you about your neighborhood. The house that you inhabit now, or grew up in, and trying to picture how that was hundreds of years ago. I think you’ll be very pleasantly surprised at the history, the interesting history of it.

And I think it’s also simple observations. I think sometimes people think “Oh, I have to be a scientist, or I have to have a Ph.D. And you don’t. Anyone who has eyes and a pen and a notebook can go out and start sketching or taking notes about what’s in their neighborhood. And if you have an Internet connection or library, then you can look up some of the history. And if you start to piece this together, what you find will be exceedingly important for future generations. For example, I just volunteered on something called the Grinnell Resurvey Project. This was out of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California at Berkeley.

And one of my old professors came out here to Death Valley. I live in the Death Valley area now. And he was resurveying with a set of live traps to capture rodents. He captured them and let them go, but it was simply to see what was there, count them, what habitat they were in. And he was resurveying the exact same spots that Joseph Grinnell and some of the other zoologists had done 100 years ago. They had come through the same area on an expedition. Back then we just barely had the car. So I can imagine Grinnell and his fellow zoologists coming through this extremely remote area and doing a scientific expedition. They were taking notes, they had detailed notebooks. They had a couple of photographs, black and white photographs. But they had very good scientific methods for recording the landscape.

And so Jim Patton and some of these other zoologists today came back and they camped in the same spots and recorded the same things. It’s going to go into a big study about how faunas have changed over 100 years. And I remember he just told me a couple of weeks ago, he said “If somebody can do this now, they will not even understand how important this will be for scientists 100 years in the future.” Tracking climate change. So your information, whether you’re a scientist or not, or a specialist or a historian, can actually be an archive for future people to understand and believe what your neighborhood, what your landscape was like today.

DJ: This reminds me of a couple that my mom met 25 years ago, who had, 20 years previous to that, devoted their lives to doing population surveys of a specific species of penguin. And the reason they did that, starting back in the 70’s, is because they wanted to have a baseline. They knew back then that the world is getting trashed and they wanted for, when the time came, for nobody to be able to say “Gosh, we don’t have the numbers to show that these penguins are declining.”

And so they, from the day they were married, and they did it as newlyweds; they moved to this area and were just doing population surveys, because it’s like for this one population we will have the baseline, so later on we will have the information to do whatever we need to do.

LC: Exactly. And it’s real information, not models, not computer models, which I don’t always agree with. Actual observations on the ground. One of the most famous naturalists in my life was a man named Derham Giuliani. He lived in the Owens Valley area of California most of his life. He was a pretty obsessive observer of nature. I guess he had a college degree but he was no sort of scientist or biologist. But he was the best naturalist I’ve ever met. He lived in Big Pine, and I think it was every week for 40 years he drove up this road and counted chipmunks, the species of chipmunk that lives in the White Mountains. And so after 40 years of this weekly route he did, he actually tracked – he had mountains of data that scientists now are – I mean, nobody does a scientific study for 40 years straight. So it’s immensely important to show, I think he did see some shifts in range and elevation.

And scientists now are archiving his notes. Personally he passed on, but his legacy of note-taking is just extraordinarily valuable for understanding where we’re going in the future.

DJ: You know, that reminds me of something that my mother recommended that I do about 15 years ago, is every year, about this time of year, like clockwork, I start freaking out because I haven’t heard any tree frogs yet. And I think “Oh my God, this is the year that the collapse of the amphibians is going to hit home.” And so my mom suggested that I keep a calendar and just write down observations, that tonight was – it’s not happening today, but some day would be “This is the first day I see dragonflies this spring.” Or “This is the first day that the willows start to bloom.” Or “This is the first day that I hear frogs.” I hear a few frogs in the distance and then a week later it’s like “Okay, now the frogs are singing en masse.” And she suggested it at first just so I wouldn’t be freaking out every year in January. But it’s actually – this is another thing people can do, even if they don’t want to take on the entire task of figuring out what Kansas was like, which I wish somebody would do. Even if they don’t want to do that, they can still start this observation. This is really important because of the notion of declining baselines, that if you don’t know what the baseline is, then when things get worse, you might not notice.

LC: Exactly. And that’s such an easy thing that anyone can do. I mean, children can do this. I have a college-ruled notebook that always sits on my desk with a pen next to it, and every day I make a bird list, what I see in the yard. But I do things like you just mentioned. I make these phenological notes of when – and we have tree frogs here – the first day of the year that the tree frogs start calling. Around here it’s usually February 1, but it varies. When buds start to open on the cottonwoods or when the wildflowers start to bloom, different species of wildflowers come and go. These are incredibly simple things that anyone can look at, and they’re actually really important for the future. Scientists love this kind of actual data, so yeah, that’s a good idea.

DJ: So we have like a minute or two left, and either a) is there anything that you’ve wanted me to ask or that you wanted to say that I haven’t given you the opportunity to say, or b) what would be your parting note to anybody who’s listening?

LC: I guess my parting note would be that the field of natural history is kind of the basis of a lot of science, and my book was based on natural history. I mean, it wasn’t anything really technical. It was just learning how to go outside and observe nature. And I think this is beginning to be taught in colleges more and more, but there’s a definite need for people to be aware of how to go and observe things, and this can actually help you in other areas of your life, too. Developing your powers of observation and recording what you see around you is a really important skill and I think it can be something that can improve our society, even if we notice each other better, notice what’s going on in our surroundings, record some of this. And so I guess my parting plea is the importance of natural history, and being taught from childhood through college and onwards.

DJ: Well thank you so much for that. I’m going to end with just more one random thing from your wonderful book A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California. I opened to page 159 and it’s Father Crespie again, describing what you mentioned before.

“We went over land, that was all of it level, dark and friable, well-covered with fine grasses, and very large clumps of very tall broad grass, burnt in some spots and not in others. The unburnt grass was so tall that it topped us on horseback by a yard. All about are large tablelands with big tall live oaks, I’ve never seen larger, and many sycamores as well. We have come across rose patches in such great amounts that the plains here were full of them in many spots.”

So thank you so much again for your work and thank you for being on the program. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Laura Cunningham. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.

Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen
No Responses — Written on January 14th — Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen

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