Surviving Stereotypes: Indigenous Ecology, Environmental Crisis, and Science Education in California

Article excerpt

1. Origins

Not in his most dire prognostications could John Muir have foreseen the extent of the damage that would be done to the natural world of California within a century of his death. In an 1876 essay entitled God's First Temples: How Shall We Preserve Our Forests? he predicts that the Golden State's gold and silver, "stored in the rocks, locked up in the safest of all banks" would continue to "pay out steadily ... centuries hence, like rivers pouring from perennial mountain fountains." He then adds:

   The riches of our magnificent soil-beds are also comparatively
   safe, because even the most barbarous methods of wildcat farming
   cannot effect complete destruction, and however great the
   impoverishment produced, full restoration of fertility is always
   possible to the enlightened farmer. (p. 629)

Muir would surely have valued Allan Schoenherr's A Natural History of California (1992), though it is likely that some of its contents would greatly disturb him. Gold mining, for example, may no longer be as profitable an enterprise as Muir thought it would still be today. Nonetheless, as Schoenherr reports, the "safest of all banks" are no longer so secure.

   The threat of environmental degradation from mining operations is
   not over. A gold-mining process known as cyanide heap leaching has
   been developed. In this process, low-grade ore is piled up, and a
   cyanide solution is sprayed on top. ... Obviously, there is concern
   that the highly toxic cyanide solution may escape into groundwater
   or streams, but miners assure all those concerned that the process
   is safe and efficient. (p. 234)

One may well imagine Muir's likely reply to these mining industry executives' assurances. It is harder to imagine his reaction to "the enlightened farmer" of 21st century agribusiness, whose practices have led Schoenherr to make a grim prediction of his own.

   Desertification in the Great Central Valley is continuing. ... A
   comprehensive plan, involving environmentally sound principles,
   will have to be enacted soon, or agriculture in California will
   suffer the same fate as that of the Fertile Crescent in the Tigris
   and Euphrates valleys. (p. 543)

Most Californians today would be at least as shocked by this fact as Muir would likely be. Assumptions of the inexhaustible bounty of the land and its resources are older than the Bear Flag Republic and American statehood. In 1830, eight years before Muir was born, Juan Bandini extolled the land's vast potential in a proposal for its development.

The climate and fertile valleys of California offer all types of vegetation a person could hope for. ... It is very unusual to find a plain anywhere in the territory that is not able to produce fruitfully. In addition, all the fields and hillsides produce infinite types of wild fruit, such as strawberries and other exquisite and diverse herbs, many of which have not been botanically classified. ... The country also abounds in deer, rabbits, and hare. Unfortunately, there is also an abundance of bears, wolves, coyotes, squirrels, and moles, which do a good amount of damage in the fields, especially the latter three. Geese, cranes, and ducks are plentiful in season, and a unique type of quail is abundant. In sum, Alta California lacks none of the essential elements for an inexhaustible production. The only thing it does lack is people. (Beebe & Senkewitz, 2001, p. 385)

Given that one of Bandini's foremost objectives was the secularization of the missions, and that these had from their inception relied on forced labor by the region's indigenous peoples, it may seem odd that he perceived California as unpopulated. But this notion is consistent with European and American views of California Indians, who were perceived as occupying the lowest niche on the scale of human cultural and racial development, lower even than Indians elsewhere in the Americas. …