Essential Reads

Tending the Wild
Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources

M. Kat Anderson
University of California Press, 2005, $39.95

Most California children were taught that the state’s indigenous people hunted and gathered from the abundance of a pristine wilderness, that they left little trace and didn’t alter the landscape. Conservation organizations apply an ethic arising from the same set of assumptions. Tending the Wild’s first gift is to turn those assumptions upside down.

Today’s brush-choked tinder-filled forests are a garden left untended for over a century. Meadow wildflowers don’t approach the massed displays described by early Euro-American settlers because they are no longer managed for edible bulb and seed production. As M. Kat Anderson puts it, “Much of the landscape in California that so impressed early writers, photographers, and landscape painters was in fact a cultural landscape, not the wilderness they imagined. While they extolled the ‘natural’ qualities of the California landscape they were really responding to its human influence.”

California had been settled for at least 12,000 years when the Europeans arrived and was the most densely populated area in North America apart from Mexico City. “It was almost impossible for early Euro-American explorers to go more than a few miles without encountering indigenous people,” Anderson notes. These people, in every one of California’s diverse habitats, had been shaping the environment for millennia. It was just too large a picture for the Europeans to see.

Indigenous Californians were viewed as primitive because they did not practice agriculture. As Anderson points out, the integrated practices of the native Californians “were so successful in meeting human needs that there was no motivation to develop more labor-intensive techniques for growing domesticated crops.” Diets included several hundred different plant species known by everyone in detail and particulars of use. Everyday knowledge “encompassed what today we call ornithology, entomology, botany, zoology, ichthyology, ecology, and geology.” Those separations would not make sense to indigenous Californians, whose sustainable culture depended on what anthropologists call a “kincentric” view, in which humans are closely related to all other animals and plants and all life-forms can be teachers.

Tending the Wild includes over 150 pages of footnotes. This attention pays off in the compelling large view and in bits of information that may become crucial to our post-fossil-fuel future. —Gina Covina

Introduction to California Birdlife
Jules Evens and Ian Tait
California Natural History Guides
University of California Press, 2005, $16.95

If you’re looking for a bird identification field guide, Introduction to California Birdlife isn’t it. But if you want to better understand the lifestyles and habitats of the Golden State’s birds, this collaboration between ornithologist Jules Evens and photographer Ian Tait would be an excellent supplement to your library. It organizes the state into seven bioregions—marine, shoreline, coast range, Central Valley and Delta, mountains and foothills, Great Basin, and deserts—and explains how California’s incredible diversity of birds (over 600 species!) and high degree of endemism (birds native and restricted to this state) are largely a result of our micro-climates and topography. Included are weather patterns, vegetation types, and ecological zones within those bioregions, so Introduction is as much an eco/geography primer as a “bird book.” A useful glossary of ecological and ornithological terms is included. Evens makes crystal-clear how bird survival and diversity are dependent upon habitat—that if we don’t protect the places where our native birds live, we will surely lose them. —Lisa Owens Viani

The Future of Foods
Deborah Koons Garcia
DVD, Lily Films, 2004

On tonight’s menu: corn on the cob engineered to produce pest-killing bacterial toxins with a side of juicy tomatoes injected with flounder cells. Not you, right? You wouldn’t serve food invaded by bacteria and DNA from other species. But thanks to Monsanto, the FDA, and the USDA, there’s a good chance such foods are landing in your store, untested and unlabeled, and you and your children are eating them.

In her vivid, well-rounded documentary, filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia delves into how genetically modified foods have quietly made their way onto our plates. The film explores the ethics behind the genetic manipulation of our food supply, examining the morality of patenting seed, in the process asking if we can patent life and what might happen if corporations are given the power to own and control the earth’s species.

From Canada to Mexico, Future tells us of farmers and their families forced to fight against corporate agri-giant Monsanto as it attempts to control crops and seeds. The film gives a remarkably clear portrayal of how a global issue affects communities and individuals—and how we are affected by a government that fails to protect us. Garcia closes with viable solutions, suggesting a slow food model for change, profiling local farmers’ markets and organic farms.

The Future of Food was shown as a work in progress in Mendocino County before the March 2004 election and was one of the primary factors in the passage of GMO-ban Measure H. The film is screening at various locations across the country and is available for educational and non-theatrical screenings. Visit for more information. —Mary Vance

Comments are closed.