"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.
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.
The native gardens of California
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