“Nature really misses us,” laments M. Kat Anderson. “We no longer have a relationship with plants and animals, and that’s the reason why they’re going away.” Anderson is the author of Tending the Wild, in which she describes the relationships that California Indians have with the plants and animals, the rocks and streams, the sacred land which is their ancient home. It’s an essential book for pilgrims who strive to envision the long and rugged path back home to wildness, freedom, and sustainability.
In medieval Europe, hungry dirty peasant farmers succeeded in painstakingly perfecting a miserable, laborious, backbreaking form of agriculture that depleted the soil, and produced minimal yields with erratic inconsistency. They were malnourished, unhealthy, and most of them died young — whilst the lords and ladies, who claimed to own the land, wallowed in a rich sludge of glitter and gluttony.
When European explorers arrived in California, they discovered half-naked heathen barbarians who were exceedingly healthy, and enjoyed an abundance of nourishing wild foods that they acquired without sweat or toil. Clearly, these savages were people who suffered from a lack of civilization’s elevated refinements: agriculture, smallpox, uncomfortable ugly clothing, brutal enslavement, and religious enlightenment from priests who preached the virtues of love, but practiced exploitive racist cruelty.
In 1868, Titus Fey Cronise wrote that when whites arrived, the land of California was “filled with elk, deer, hares, rabbits, quail, and other animals fit for food; the rivers and lakes swarming with salmon, trout, and other fish, their beds and banks covered with mussels, clams, and other edible mollusca; the rocks on its sea shores crowded with seal and otter; and its forests full of trees and plants, bearing acorns, nuts, seeds, and berries.”
The greed-crazed Europeans went absolutely berserk, rapidly destroying whatever could be converted into money: forests, waterfowl, whales, deer, elk, salmon, gold nuggets. Grizzly bear meat was offered at most restaurants. There were fortunes to be made, the supply of valuable resources was “inexhaustible,” and the foolish Indians were so lazy that they let all of this wealth go to waste.
There were 500 to 600 different tribes in California, speaking many different languages. In North America, the population density of California Indians was second only to the Aztec capitol of Mexico City. They lived quite successfully by hunting, fishing, and foraging — without domesticated plants or animals, without plowing or herding, without fortified cities, authoritarian rulers, perpetual warfare, horrid sanitation, or epidemics of contagious disease. The Indians found the Europeans to be incredibly peculiar. The Pit River people called them enellaaduwi — wanderers — homeless people with no attachment to the land or its creatures.
The bulk of Tending the Wild describes how the California Indians tended the land. They did not merely wander across the countryside in hopes of randomly discovering plant and animal foods. They had an intimate, sacred relationship with the land, and they tended it in order to encourage the health of their closest relatives — the plant and animal communities upon which they depended.
Fires were periodically set to clear away brush, promote the growth of grasses and herbs, and increase the numbers of larger game animals. Burning significantly altered the ecosystem on a massive scale, but it didn’t lead to the creation of barren wastelands over time, like agriculture continues to do, at an ever-accelerating rate. California has a long dry season, and wildfires sparked by lightening are a normal occurrence in this ecosystem.
Nuts, grains, and seeds are a very useful source of food. They’re rich in oils, calories, and protein. They can be stored for long periods, enabling survival through lean seasons and lean years. The quantity of acorns foraged each year was not regular and dependable, but many were gathered in years of abundance. A diverse variety of wildflowers and grasses can provide a dependable supply of seeds and grains.
The Indians tended the growth of important plants in a number of ways — pruning, weeding, burning, watering, replanting bulbs, sowing seeds. Communities of cherished plants were deliberately expanded. The Indians were blessed with a complete lack of advanced Old World technology. They luckily had no draft animals or plows, so their soil-disturbing activities were mostly limited to digging bulbs, corms, and tubers, and planting small tobacco gardens.
Today, countless ecosystems are being ravaged by agriculture. A few visionaries, like Wes Jackson at the Land Institute, are working to develop a far less destructive mode of farming, based on mechanically harvesting the grain from perennial plants. This research is a slow process, and success is not expected any time soon.
California Indians developed a brilliant, time-proven, sustainable system for producing seeds and grain without degrading the ecosystem. So did the wild rice gatherers of the Great Lakes region. They built no cities, and they did not suffer from the misery and monotony of civilization. They had no powerful leaders, ruling classes, or legions of exploited slaves. They were not warlike societies. Their ecosystems were clean and healthy. They lived like real human beings — wild, free, and happy.
Tending the Wild is an important book. It presents us with stories of a way of life that worked, and worked remarkably well. This is precious knowledge for us to contemplate, as our own society is rapidly circling the drain, and our need for remembering healthy old ideas has never been greater.
M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild — Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2005.