“Boulders the size of Volkswagens came down right there,” George said, motioning with both arms across the canyon.

“The noise was so loud I couldn’t hear Rocky talk right next to me.”

We stood in the lower part of a desert canyon of the Panamint Mountains in the Mojave Desert, looking out over a stream that came down next to the shack where the two gold miners lived after a super-cell hundred-year flood swept through.

A lank man with gray stubble beard, George took his hat off to show us the little gold nugget embedded in glass attached to his hatband. He was proud of how he and his son lived on the mountain and extracted just enough of the shiny mineral from a crawl-hole up canyon to make a living. Looking around I thought of no better historical re-enactment depicting Euro-American 1850s Gold Rush living than their camp with no electricity or running water, complete with a little garden of squash, corn, and big-leaved tobacco.

“Here, have some,” George said, handing me a bag of cured tobacco leaves. I didn’t smoke but accepted his generosity and took the bag, happy that he was willing to share with us the history of the local land.

I steered the conversation back to the great flood that wiped out the old road and changed the geography of the canyon twenty years ago.

“Yup, that was a hundred-year flood, we have to walk up now too,” George explained, refering to the dirt road that was destroyed to their homestead.

Walking up the canyon was our job that summer, our team led by herpetologist Dr. David Morafka of California State University, Dominguez Hills, to survey for the elusive Panamint alligator lizard, a slim snake-like reptile that hunted insects in rocky talus slopes and desert stream thickets only in arid mountain ranges between the Sierra Nevada and Death Valley. No one knew how common or rare these animals were -- few people had seen them -- were they were nearly extinct or merely secretive? We hiked up the canyon probably a hundred times, twice a week or more to turn over stones, search in wild grape and willow thickets, and set live-traps. Through the spring highwater, into the summer heat and fall yellowing of the willow and cottonwoods, we saw the subtle seasonal changes.

Up the rocky canyon, past barrel cactus and steep cliffs where bighorn sheep came down to drink, a wonderful gorge of white marble towered over the trail, polished from past floodwaters ten-foot high cascading waterfalls poured over the trail here. The place seemed incredibly wild and remote, although someone recently found an old Shoshone lodge frame of branches still standing in a deep side canyon -- people had lived here long before we were born. Old rusted vehicles sat in places in the stream, relicts from a previous era before the great flood when folks ascended to the 6,000-foot miner’s ghost town. All through the canyon the water was alive with green moss, maidenhair ferns, flowering stream orchids, pools of Pacific tree frogs and half-dollar-sized water beetles -- an oasis in the harsh desert. And we memorized every footstep of it.

All through the summer our work progressed as we recorded notes on plant life, habitat types, rainfall, water quality, and made a digital photo file of the area. We found our gold: three Panamint alligator lizards, with beautiful cream-and-orange banded bodies and inquisitive amber eyes. But we did not expect what was to come at the end of the season -- we would witness how suddenly a landscape can change.

It came in the night. At the time I lived in park housing on the Death Valley side of the Panamints, in view of the pinyon woodlands covering the mountain. The fiercest September thunderstorm super-cell I can remember pounded our roof, sending slurries of water down the street. Then it moved on. I went outside to look at it, a dark floating cell like some monstrous being throwing off tremendous amounts of lightning bolts as it blew slowly across the starry sky over the valley. I watched as it aimed directly for the top of our canyon. Dead on, the lightning illuminated the crags and peaks above our stream.

The next day we drove out to the canyon, and could barely believe what we saw. A massive new avalanche of boulders and debris filled the old streambed, carving out the canyon walls, destroying the willows and cottonwoods, and spilling out onto the fan at the base of the canyon in a channel which took out the road to the trailhead. Car-sized boulders lay where none had been the week before. Jagged rock-rubble and broken tree trunks lay everywhere in a chaotic mass. The old junk vehicles had been carried a mile down and dumped by George and Rocky’s place. The miners had survived fine, knowing to build up on the inside curve terrace of the river channel. The floodwaters had pummeled the outside curve on the other side, throwing mud 50 feet up on the cliff.

We all stood around scratching our heads.

“Looks like we got another hundred-year flood,” Rocky offered.

Five years later we returned to the canyon. It had changed again. New willows and cottonwoods had seeded themselves and already grown over our heads. The rocks had settled, some soil had formed, and the stream meandered through lush thickets regrown. Even the orchids returned. The tree frogs and water beetles re-colonized the devastation, having survived in springs up on the high canyon sides. Bighorn sheep sign littered the ground as the animals took advantage of the pioneer vegetation to dine on. The alligator lizards still crawled over the rocks; perhaps a few were swept away by the flood, but most survived.

Rivers and streams, and big storms, have taught me a lot about larger cycles of time, events that take place over decades, changes that can only be seen if you watch for more than one year. Then some of the secrets begin to show themselves to you, slightly, not always clearly. This book is about some of the changes that have shaped California in our own lifetime and back into deep time.

Surprise Canyon in the year 2000, before the great flood, with dense willow, cottonwood, and shrub riparian vegetation in the marble gorge.
The September 2001 super-cell dumped terrific amounts of rain onto the Panamint Mountains as we watched from Death Valley.
Driving out and hiking up Surprise Canyon after the big storm, we witnessed how the landscape was completely changed: the willows and stream vegetation swept away and covered with rock debris.
The devastation of our familiar Surprise Canyon was stunning. the landscape had changed overnight and was unrecognizable.
But within 5 years the willows, cottonwoods, and stream vegetation began to regrow. The devastation was not permanent. Life was returning quickly.
The riparian vegetation regrew quickly because the water kept flowing. Surprise Canyon is recovering from that epic flood, and is returning. Trees are regrowing.

Historical ecology is the study of the history of a landscape and the life forms that live on it, including ourselves and our experiences. I approached this work as an artist-naturalist might if she had come to Old California to explore, take notes, sketch, paint, and listen to the stories told about the changing landscape and wildlife. It is my own interpretation of the changes that have taken place in the natural world in the areas I have lived and visited.

Although speculative, I felt that enough information existed to attempt a reconstruction of the past world of early Californian, perhaps best brought back to life through pictures, imperfect as they may be. Our libraries and museums contain so many historical accounts by explorers, pioneers, native people, and naturalists; scholarly studies of fluctuating wildlife populations during the colonization period; ecological research into present California systems; archaeology and paleontology; old photographs of the state on the edge of pristine times; and magnificent paintings of early landscapes that surely, I thought, a comprehensive re-creation can be attempted. Armed with this knowledge, since 1980 I traveled all over the state, hunting out the remaining vestiges and relictual pieces of semi-pristine landscapes that are left to flesh out the narratives that I found. The clues to the past yet remain if one is willing to patiently seek them in the field.

Then I took these notes, photos, and sketches and reconstructed scenes of Old California landscapes and wildlife as a method for visualizing the changes that have swept over our state.

In writing this book, however, the limitations of size quickly became apparent, and my original aim at a comprehensive encyclopedic work on California early natural history had to be modified toward a presentation of only a few examples for each chapter, a “teaser” to the topic. I chose a few stories which I thought best explained the state’s wonderful and sometimes unfamiliar landscapes and the processes that shape them. And I concentrated on California’s core geography and habitats of the west-central and southern parts of the state. As much as I would have liked to include the desert, the Owens Valley and more of the Sierra Nevada, the sagebrush basins and Cascades mountains, the redwood country and northern California woodlands, I had to limit this study. Much more could be told.

As I dove deeper into the richness of California landscapes what struck me most were not the individual animals and plants, nor even cityscapes erased back to natural habitats, but the processes that affect the world, including us. Things such as fire, climate change, disturbance, and species interactions. Things that ecologists are wrestling with, trying to study and define. Things that Native Californians have understood for countless generations. Look for these ecological processes through each chapter.

The wonderful aspect of discovering old landscapes is that anyone can do it. You do not have to have a PhD, simply good powers of observation and a lot of curiosity. I include activities throughout the book on how to be a landscape detective, which incidentally has the beneficial side effect of getting us closer to the land itself.

The term “pristine” is used here in the rather arbitrary sense of the time before massive European colonization during the 18th and 19th centuries, admitting that California’s environments were always in a state of flux due to climatic and geologic events, and were for thousands of years managed by native tribal peoples. But the distinction is useful. Standing in the middle of a valley or on a mountain, seemingly unaffected by modern civilization, I have often been struck by how unrecognizable the landscape looks compared to early descriptions of the same spots. The lack of animals that were called abundant, the new weedy plants, even the lowered water tables all call attention to profound changes that mark a major discontinuity in the long flow of California’s ecology. One can speculate that in some important respects the natural world of the state during the 1400s, say, was more similar to a time 100,000 years ago than it is to the modern world. Invasive species, pesticides and herbicides, pavement and asphalt, dumped pollutants, greatly lowered biodiversity and biomass, all are novel in geologic history.

A few years ago at an art show in San Fransisco a man walked up to some of my paintings showing the city as it might have appeared 400 years ago with prairie and elk sign. He silently studied the piece, then looked at me and asked,

“Why do you want to go back to this? Isn’t our civilization good enough?”

He had assumed I hated the 21th century with its technology and fast-paced life (I was occasionally annoyed by it), but he was wrong.

I did not advocate returning to this lost world wholesale I told him, but recognizing it, studying it, as a part of our heritage, a prehistory that has helped shape the California heritage: rolling bright-yellow hills, sun-drenched poppy fields, sapphire blue skies, great forests that awed the world, glacial valleys, and of course, the golden bear. Knowing some of the ways in which an older, healthier California ecosystem operated can surely aid us in making our present land more habitable. I tried to explain to the man that I simply enjoyed history: the Old World has its Roman ruins to look back on in wonder; Californians have a natural and cultural legacy of equal interest, much of it similarly in ruins awaiting careful students to gaze upon it, get closer to it, imagine it, restore it to beauty.

Another critique of the book that I received more recently, was a man who wrote me saying that the scenes in my book were "lonely" and unpeopled, and that I was ignoring Indigenous contributions. I thought this was unfounded since I discussed thousands of years of cultural relations in California, but also this was a result of the editing process of the publisher, which decided to leave out many of my paintings and illustrations showing people before European contact. Therefore in this website I restore the many scenes of people back into the story, as I had intended.

Let us walk through the hills and valleys of California to see what secrets we might be able to uncover about the past, and the future. What we will see is that change is always happening, change is the most natural part of our landscape, change is what we must embrace and learn to live with, for our future California landscape will be swept along in its continuing currents.

Wildcat Creek. Studies of different seasons over many years: above left, late summer with slow-moving pools, September 1998; above right, a drought summer when all the pools dry up, September 1984; lower left, average winter flow, January 1984; lower left, extreme flood event, February 1986. Oil on gold shellac-toned cotton rag paper.

Wildcat Creek in the Wildcat Canyon Regional Park east of the Richmond-El Cerrito Hills was close to where I grew up. So I visited the creek every weekend after school. And on into the decades that followed. Always observing the changes. I tried to paint differing states of the creek: some summers were average, other years were in drought conditions and the normally perennial creek dried up in late summer. I always wondered where the stickleback fish and young trout went? In winter the creek flowed well, but during the 1981-82 El Nino, the creek flooded to epic proportions, and took out the walking bridge that crossed Wildcat Creek. I hiked down a day after the storm and observed the giant flood stage of the creek that day, that scoured the alder roots and deepened the channel a good two feet lower in one episode--amazing. That taught me a lot about how changes can be both gradual and little noticed, but also intense and drastic. Only observations over decades can reveal these episodic secrets. A single visit and observation will not tell the whole story. Oil on cotton rag paper.

One original title of my book was "Golden Bear: Forgotten Landscapes of California." Another title I liked was, "Secrets of Old California: A Naturalist Imagines the Early Golden State." Editors decided that "A State of Change" would be better, and I went with it. Manuscript page not used, colored pencil on paper.

The original chapter illustration for the Introduction. This was not used in the published book. Colored pencil on paper.
Secrets of Old California--8-08.doc
My original manuscript idea title. 2008. Publishers change a lot of original material, and you just have to go with it.
Another early cover idea from my manuscript.

The original 2010 hardcover book published by Heyday--I deeply thank Malcom Margolin and all the editors and staff who helped bring this idea into a book. A second edition in softcover was published after the hard cover edition sold out.

Yellow warbler ansd blue elderberry, field sketch, ballpoint pen and colored pencil on paper.

methods of historical ecology

The information used to reconstruct these landscapes include:

Natural Archives-

  • pollen, spore, phytolith, algae, and invertebrate records buried in sediments

  • tree rings, fire scars

  • forest stand age plots (made in the 1930s for example)

  • charcoal layers in sediments

  • lake levels

  • coral growth rings

  • soil and dune sediment stratigraphy

  • travertine deposit stratigraphy

  • geomorphological features -- old meander bends in rivers and stream terraces, for example

  • packrat midden

  • fossils and subfossils (bones not yet tuened to stone)

  • alluvial fan downcutting and aggradation patterns

  • glacier extents and moraines

  • ice core data

  • relict distributions of species

  • relict habitats

  • contemporary analogs -- the biology of living species and the ecology of present-day habitats

Indigenous Cultural Documentary Archives-

  • archaeological deposits, old trails, village sites, mortars

  • tree rings, fire scars

  • native agricultural seed types, farmed areas

  • oral traditions and interviews with Indigenous people and elders

Other Documentary Archives-

  • old maps

  • early sketches and paintings

  • old photographs and repeat photography, including aerial photos

  • explorer’s journals

  • Spanish missionary texts

  • engineering reports

  • land surveys

  • toponymy -- place names

  • hunting and fishing magazines

  • weather records

  • interveiws with local people who have lived in a place for a long time

Detail of Yokuts-Chumash trade camp, Cuyama Valley, South Coast Range, California. Oil on panel. See the Fire Chapter for more on this scene.

This book and website honors the legacy of land management by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years in California, Tribes and Native people's work in the present, and into the future to make a better California for everyone.