11 Nov 2007, 12:53am
Cultural Landscapes
by admin

Tending the Wild

Anderson, M. Kat. Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources. 2005. Univ. Calif. Press.

Review by Mike Dubrasich

M. Kat Anderson is a Lecturer in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of California, Davis; Associate Ecologist at the Agricultural Experimental Station at the University of California, Davis; and a faculty member in the Graduate Group in Ecology at the University of California, Davis. She is coeditor, with T. C. Blackburn, of Before the Wilderness: Native Californians as Environmental Managers (1993) and coeditor, with Henry T. Lewis, of Forgotten Fires: Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness by Omer C. Stewart (2002).

Tending the Wild was winner of the 2007 Mary W. Klinger Book Award from the Society for Economic Botany.

Tending the Wild focuses on the many uses the pre-Columbian California Indians made of native plants, and the methods the Indians used to perpetuate those plants. Contrary to some modern myths, California Indians were extensive agriculturalists who planted, tilled, pruned, and especially burned to manage desirable plants and animals.

Kat Anderson imparts a humanitarian undercurrent to her studies and writing. Indian burning may have had landscape-level effects, but the practices were also individualized and localized. They were personal. The real people who lived in California and across the West managed their properties for the greatest survival/sustenance values.

Anderson elucidates “five essential principles” of a restored “tending relationship”:

1. The ecological history of the land matters for management today, and indigenous practices are at the roots of this history.

2. Humans can use natural resources to meet their need without destroying those resources.

3. Human prehistory is more complex than the simple dichotomy between hunter-gatherer and agriculturalist would indicate.

4. Achieving sustainable use of the earth’s resources will involve cultural changes as much as advances in knowledge and transformation of economies.

5. Establishing more intimate relationships with nature and rooting ourselves in a place foster self-fulfillment and a more responsible stance toward the natural world.

Some excerpts:

The word tending, as in Tending the Wild, is meant to encapsulate the essence of the relationship that the indigenous people of California had with the natural world in pre-Columbian times. It also suggests the timeless wisdom inherent in this relationship, wisdom that we sorely need today. Tend means “to have the care of; watch over; look after.” Thus the word connotes a relationship of stewardship, involvement, and caring very different from the dualistic, exploit-it-or-leave-it-alone relationship with nature characteristic of Western Society…

Now that the book [Tending the Wild] is being published, it is my fervent hope that certain benefits will be realized. First, I hope that greater understanding of the stewardship legacy left us by California Indians will foster a paradigm shift in our thinking about the state’s past — particularly with regard to wildland fire — and the necessity of prescribed burning in the management of the state’s natural resources today. Second, increased appreciation for the diverse indigenous cultures of California could lead to collaborative projects that reestablish access to the land and maintain culturally significant plant resources for the perpetuation of native traditions [and landscapes]. Third, experiments and cross-disciplinary studies… assess the degree to which particular ecosystems and plant species are dependent on indigenous disturbance regimes could be launched. Fourth I would like to encourage people to pursue studies in natural history and ethnobiology, both of which emphasize tactile contact with and direct learning from nature and indigenous peoples. And fifth, we desperately need to foster a new vision of human-nature relationships and the place of humans in the natural world…

By the eighteenth century, wilderness areas in Europe had come to be viewed as places for self-renewal, where one could escape the hectic, burdensome life of the cities for the tranquility and purity of nature. The splendor and nobility of nature had become linked with God’s creative energies and omnipotence. Coupled with this favorable view of wilderness was the idea of the noble savage—a kind of wild man uncorrupted by the vices of civilized life—who lived a simple, harmonious, unfettered existence in nature…

Many of the late-nineteenth-century Americans… including John Muir, were strongly influenced by Romanticism and its proponents. Muir and those with similar views responded to the destruction and exploitation of California’s natural resources with a preservationist ethic that valued nature above all else but which defined nature as that which was free of human influence…

Muir was clearly troubled by the Indians he encountered, unable to fit them into his worldview…

Muir’s view of California nature was a necessary counterweight to the view that had prevailed before—that nature was there to be used, exploited, and commodified—but it left us with a schizophrenic approach to the natural world: humans either conquer nature and destroy its integrity, or they visit it as an outsider, idealizing its beauty and largely leaving it alone. These seemingly contradictory attitudes—to idealize nature or commodify it—are really two sides of the same coin, what the restoration ecologist William Jordan terms the “coin of alienation”…

According to the Wilderness Act of 1964 (Public Law 88-577), wilderness is “an area where the earth and [its] community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain, An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which … generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.”

[Yet] much of what we consider wilderness today was in fact shaped by Indian burning, harvesting, tilling, pruning, sowing, and tending…

From Dr. Charles Kay, Utah State University:

Author after author describe “pre-settlement” conditions apparently ignorant of the fact that California has been settled for at least the last 10,000 years!! Kat Anderson is the only author to use the correct term, “pre-European settlement.” Kat Anderson is also the only author who apparently understands that California was densely populated prior to events set in motion by Columbus’ accidental “discovery” of the New World. And finally, Kat Anderson is the only fire ecologist to have written about the genocide that Europeans inflicted on California’s original owners.

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