The native gardens of California

  • Tending the Wild

    M. Kat Anderson
  • wild plant

    M. Kat Anderson
  "I’ve always wondered why people call plants ‘wild.’ We don’t think of them that way. They just come up wherever they are, and like us, they are at home in that place."

          — Clara Jones Sargosa, Chukchansi

In her new book, Tending the Wild, ethnobotanist Kat Anderson examines the state of California’s "wilderness" at the time of European contact. Far from an untouched land, it supported roughly 300,000 native inhabitants, living where their ancestors had lived for 12,000 years. Anderson has spent the last two decades gathering knowledge from surviving Indians, and she presents it here, often poetically, in this collection of stories on how the elders used — and shaped — the natural resources in one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America.

According to Anderson, the California first seen by the Europeans was managed on a local and regional scale by natives, who carefully harvested, bred, trimmed, burned and moved thousands of populations of wild animals and plants. From the striking oaks and grassland of the Central Valley to the open pine forests of the Sierra foothills, California was a mosaic of landscape patches, each tended with knowledge and careful observation.

But European culture swept these connections away in a relatively short time (roughly from 1700 to 1900) by ignoring the native culture, insisting that natives eat European foods, and deliberately destroying traditional food sources. Much of this replacement of a landscape of native plants with imported plants from Europe was done with what Anderson calls "cultural blindness." Even today, she says, most California residents are so divorced from nature that they cannot tell one grass from another, and have no idea that the golden rolling hills of California are actually exotic, invasive weeds for as far as the eye can see.

All is not lost, however: The book ends with several chapters on the revival of native practices in the landscape and a hopeful section on ecological restoration. Anderson also includes scientific names for all the plants, a lengthy bibliography, and an extensive, detailed index. This is an inspiring book for historians, gardeners, botanists, ecologists, restorationists and anyone who wants to see — and tend — the natural landscape in the old way.