The Land We Encounter

What if there never was any wilderness? What if the story of Adam and Eve is a myth about a legendary distant wilderness, before humans were human, before animals created homes?

What if the land we encounter has always been tended by humans?

And, what if wildlife, clean running streams, pollinators, badger and fish, all need us to do that tending?

How might that change your relationship with Nature? How might that change your notions of the importance of stewardship for Mother Earth?

In My Travels

In my travels to jungles to experience Earth’s biodiversity, I find the handiwork of humans, even deep in parks. In the Andean cloud forest, on the sides of Machu Pichu, the fog clears, and the bright sun reveals the corduroy of ancient agricultural terraces across impossibly steep slopes for miles around. A guide points to hidden complex irrigation systems that kept these farmed terraces watered. On one such hillside, I discover oca plants, Oxalis tuberosa, with their buttery sweet starchy roots; these were as important a food to the Inca as potatoes. Still they hang on.

In the mountains overlooking the Caribbean on Costa Rica’s coast, I followed red and yellow variegated leaves through dense thickets after passing through a tropical-tree shaded cacao plantation. We discover a mango tree and then a patch of bananas, and then more seemingly wild forest. Along this variegated leaf-marked trail, we find a couple rubber trees scarred from tapping 50 years ago. Finally after 6 hours of hiking, the crow of a rooster, the barking of a handful of dogs, and a clearing announces my arrival at an Indian outpost, the closest one to ‘town.’

A little North, on Belize’s low coastal plain, I am guided to ‘wild’ cacao plants deep in the rainforest. It takes hours of blazing hot, sweat drenched bug-bothered hiking through dense forest to get to the first few cacaos. Along the way, on the river floodplain in a fallen tree light gap, I find diverse hot pepper plants, some with blindingly hot spherical fruit, some elongated and a little sweeter. The hill in the distance is being explored as a jungle-covered pyramid and archeological site. A giant ceiba tree we pass is cherished by the local Mayans as a bridge between the spiritual and physical worlds.

Back In the Santa Cruz Mountains

What if the expansive coastal prairies, hazelnut and buckeye groves, old growth redwood stands, patches of endangered Santa Cruz tarplant, and diversely colored iris clusters are not ‘natural?’ What if they are legacies of Native American stewardship? My eyes were once more open to that kind of encounter when traveling out of the country. Now, I am starting to look at my home landscape with the same kind of curiosity.

California’s coastal prairie on the Santa Cruz North Coast

Coastal Prairies and Endangered Tarplant

Salads of clover greens, nourishing seed cakes of red maids, sweet roasted bulbs…the prairies grew a valued diversity of foods. Digging sticks were used to remove the bigger tasty bulbs, aerating propagation beds for the following year’s bulbs. Small groups carried baskets of seeds for restoration following correctly timed prairie fires. On a few occasions, tarplant seed traded from the Central Valley is carefully sprinkled into wetter parts of the coastal meadows in hopes of providing a favorite tasty and nutritious snack.

The earliest logbooks of Old World peoples traveling along this coast described extensive coastal prairies, all burned. For generations, the dominant cultural belief of the invading people denied Indians the advanced intelligence that they clearly practiced in tending the land. Kat Anderson, who researches and writes about the complexity and expansiveness of Native Peoples’ land care, is slowly helping our culture to overcome such ignorance. She and I still encounter well educated people who have difficulty believing that the native peoples ever managed entire landscapes like these expansive coastal prairies. None of those grasslands would have been open, grassy ecosystems without regular burning, tree and shrub removal, and a wealth of other tending practices that we still must (re-)learn. Check out any patch of coastal prairie that isn’t burned, grazed, or mowed, and you’ll see it closing in from trees and shrubs: it takes just a few years.

Those coastal prairies have many rare native annual wildflowers; Santa Cruz tarplant is an especially endangered species that is barely hanging on in a few last places. Tarplants produce protein rich seeds, a staple food of the indigenous peoples of California who developed efficient techniques for harvesting large numbers of the seeds involving specialized harvesting and tote baskets. The Santa Cruz tarplant is a recently speciated taxon, a species that evolved over just the last 12,000 years – a time frame allowing for native peoples to have played an important role in its creation.

A crowd working with State Parks and the Central Coast Prescribed Burn Association, including members of local tribes, walk drip torches, starting a blaze through the grassland at Wilder Ranch. Needlegrass stands proliferate. 5th generation ranchers guide cattle through pasture gates, tinker with water troughs and maintain fences. The next spring there are immense stands of lupines, native clovers, sheets of white popcornflower, and patches of Santa Cruz tarplant.

How is it important to you that we have coastal prairies? Do you enjoy the soaring of hawks and eagles across the Monterey Bay? Are the stunning poppy displays this spring inspiring? Have you considered that prairies can help slow the spread of catastrophic wildfires, making them less intense and dangerous?

Iris fernaldii, a native iris with phenomenal floral diversity

Hazelnut and Buckeye Groves and Iris Gardens

Cracking the hard shells from hazelnuts in midsummer revealed a smooth pale nut: roasted or raw, it was a valued delicacy. The second year after burning an individual hazelnut bush, the long flexuous stems are now ready for making baskets or fish traps. Hazelnut groves must have been replanted and tended, some bushes for nuts, some for baskets. Nearby were similarly tended buckeye groves, producing nuts that were leached of toxins and ground into flour on the same grinding stones used for acorns. But, acorns were less predictable with some years yielding poor crops.

In the understory of oaks, buckeye, and hazelnut were mats of native iris plants. Each spring, vast displays of iris flowers were picked to decorate costumes for spring ritual dances. The best colored iris plants were marked and propagated the following winter. Iris beds responded well to periodic low intensity ground fires, throwing up many more blossoms and longer leaves that were a favorite for making twine and rope.

Nuts! When I find hazelnut and buckeye, if I look around enough, I’ll find remnants of Indian camps or village sites. Dark soil pitched up from gophers reveals flakes of abalone and clam or trail/road clearing reveals some flakes of worked chert. I have planted both species: they aren’t difficult to grow. Once established, they don’t seem to die. Our hedgerow of hazelnuts was only 10 years old when the 2020 fire swept through and roasted them. The following year, those hazelnut bushes rebounded vigorously; 3 years later, they are bigger than ever. This is the first year that they will make nuts. Almost all of the buckeye trees in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire footprint now have 6’ tall new stems; they will flower and make nuts in a few more years.

That 2020 fire cleared the ground for a resurgence of native iris. People throughout Bonny Doon have been reporting a surprising array of flower colors, including unexpected blues, emanating from what is supposed to be a single species (Iris fernaldii).

A Western gray squirrel forages under the canopy of an ancient hazelnut grove for one of the very few nuts produced this year. The hazelnut bushes have few leaves and few stems, the shade from the dense, young Douglas firs too much for their liking. At the base of a nearby bank, piles of buckeye fruits lie among dry leaves. The forest floor is criss-cross strewn with dead branches from the windy winter, adding dangerously to the fuel load for future wildfires. Iris leaves poke up between this array of cast off branches, a single iris seed pod rattles in the afternoon breeze.

Large, recently burned coast redwood trees

Old Growth Redwood

It took special attention to burn understory of the groves of giant redwoods. After the fires, prized morels sprung up in the spring to be followed by Prince mushrooms in the summer. The peaceful trees provided shade and peace in the hot summer. The towering trees sometimes lost easily gathered branches for firewood.

Redwoods appear in the pollen record of a local lake near Big Basin State Park around 12,000 years ago. This is the time that the native people were tending the land with fire. In the wake of their fires, the bare soil would have provided the right conditions for redwood seedlings to establish, but from where did those seeds blow? Redwood seeds do not travel far on their own. Over the last two thousand years, native peoples burned the redwood forests every 4-6 years. This was often enough to burn up the thick duff and branches while keeping the understory more open, without crowding shrubs and small trees that could add to the danger wildfires posed to the ancient trees.

Across the scar of the CZU Lightning Complex Fire, a few people struggle to clean up the fuels around the remaining redwoods. They hope to save the remaining big trees from the next wildfire, now more dangerous than ever from the immense fuel loading of hundreds of fire-killed trees. Meanwhile, prescribed fires are beginning to be lit in the understories of redwoods once again.


If you believed in wilderness before reading this, did I change your thinking about how you see this landscape? Do you believe that humans are responsible for our diverse prairies, for Santa Cruz tarplant itself, for forming groves of hazelnuts and buckeye, for creating iris beds and a diversity of iris flower colors and for stands of old growth redwood? If you are not convinced, what evidence would you need to change your point of view? Who would you trust to provide or deliver that information? Please let me know.

-this post originally appeared in Bruce Bratton’s BrattonOnline.com blog