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California: A State of Change

July 5, 2011

Laura Cunningham’s book, A State of Change*  is a remarkable achievement, reflecting a lifetime of observing nature, informed by formal training in paleontology and biology and finally depicting that knowledge in oil paintings of the historical ecology of California. 

Ms. Cunningham introduces her theme with the title of her book.  California is the state that changes and is always in a state of change.  She acknowledges the physical forces of geology and climate as well as the biological interactions of plants and animals as she describes the dynamic qualities of nature.  She treats the complexity of these interactions with respect, frequently declining to reach conclusions because of the speculation that would be required to do so. 

Although we will touch on just a few themes of her book which are relevant to the mission of the Million Trees blog, we encourage readers to give this book the complete read it deserves. 

Sustainability of native plant gardens

Site of the El Cerrito Plaza with the Albany Hill in the background, centuries ago. Oil painting by Laura Cunningham, with permission

Ms. Cunningham tells the charming story of her first experience with native plant restorations as a teenager in the hills of Berkeley/Richmond in the mid-1980s.  With her parents’ permission, she dug up the lawn in their backyard so that she could plant native grassland.  She started with the seeds of native grasses that she collected locally and later transplanted native bunch grasses from nearby properties slated for development.  After several years of regular weeding and new planting, her small plot resembled the grassland she had envisioned.

When she finished her education at UC Berkeley and began to work further away, her grassland slowly succeeded to shrubs and non-native plants, a process she describes as follows: 

“Visiting deer brought weed seeds in on their fur, scrub jays planted live oak seeds into the grass, and flying finches dropped the seeds of Himalayan blackberry in the yard.  The latter, a thick, tenacious vine, slowly formed great thickets over the grasses, shading them out in places.  The food web had won, although I had learned a lot in the process.  I dug up the yard again, back to bare dirt, and gave it back to my parents.” 

This personal story is consistent with other local experiences reported on the Million Trees blog:

 Fire Ecology of California

Those who continue to believe that non-native plants are more flammable than native plants should read Ms. Cunningham’s book, which describes at length the important role that fire plays in California’s ecology.  She introduces this topic with the heading, “Chaparral:  Burning Like a Torch of Fat.”  Charcoal deposits in ancient sediments prove that wildfires in California’s brushlands have occurred frequently for hundreds of thousands of years.  Some shrubs, such as chamise, contain resinous leaves that encourage burning.  Others, such as ceanothus and manzanita require the intense heat of a fire to germinate.  Others will germinate only in the ashes of a fire.  As we have said repeatedly on the Million Trees blog, eradicating non-native plants and trees will not eliminate fire from California.

Ms. Cunningham also reports on the modern debate about reducing wildfires in California.  Although we are very familiar with this debate, we have not read so clear a presentation of it as Ms. Cunningham provides. 

One “camp” in this debate believes that the suppression of wildfires in California has resulted in fuel loads that are much greater than in the past and therefore result in bigger, more damaging fires.  This camp believes that fire danger can be reduced by allowing smaller fires to burn and conducting periodic prescribed burns. 

The opposing view is that fire suppression has been largely unsuccessful and therefore fuel loads are not substantially greater than they were historically.  Wildfires are attributed to hot, wind-driven fire in which fuel load is irrelevant; that is, everything will burn in a wind-driven fire.  Although this is the historical fire regime, fires are causing more loss of lives and property in modern times only because of the development of residential communities in the wildland-urban interface.  This camp therefore sees no point in prescribed burns and proposes to reduce risk to lives and property by limiting residential developments in wildlands and creating defensible space around residences by eliminating most vegetation. 

With humility, Ms. Cunningham declines to choose a side in this debate, acknowledging there is much compelling evidence to support both views. 

The Million Trees blog prefers the theory that wildfires are caused by hot winds rather than accumulated fuel loads because our perspective is limited to the San Francisco Bay Area.  We don’t think prescribed burns are appropriate in a densely populated urban setting where both pollution and risk of wildfire are major concerns.  And, based on our local experience, the only fires that have become raging wildfires are those that were wind-driven.   We advocate for reducing fire hazards by creating defensible space and routine maintenance of flammable vegetation litter.   

Historical Ecology

San Francisco 500 years ago, looking eastward from the top of Nob Hill. Oil painting by Laura Cunningham, with permission

We are grateful to Ms. Cunningham for giving us permission to publish two of her historical paintings of California.  These paintings enable us to confirm that trees were not a conspicuous part of the landscape of the Bay Area.  The dominant landscape was grassland and shrubs.  Although there may have been more trees if the landscape had not been frequently burned by Native Americans, based on our knowledge of horticultural requirements of native trees, we believe that even in the absence of fire there would have been few trees.  The native trees will not tolerate the wind on the hills of San Francisco.  Even in places where trees are sheltered from the wind, they must have access to sufficient water to become established. 

When native plant advocates demand that non-native trees be destroyed, they frequently claim that non-native trees will be replaced by native trees (even without being planted in some cases).  We assume their claims are based either on strategy (i.e., promising “replacement” trees in order to diffuse the opposition of those who like trees) or on ignorance of California’s natural history. 

With deep respect, we acknowledge Ms. Cunningham’s impressive knowledge of California’s ecological history and the accomplishment which her book represents.  Our thanks to Ms. Cunningham for sharing her lifetime of study and observation of nature with us and rendering that knowledge so beautifully in her paintings. 


* Cunningham, Laura, A State of Change:  Forgotten Landscapes of California, Heydey Books, Berkeley, California, 2010

2 Comments leave one →
  1. bleacox permalink
    August 14, 2011 6:39 pm

    I just checked this book out at the library. It is beautiful and one that I would like to own. I am so grateful to Laura for creating this work of art.

    Lea Cox

    • August 14, 2011 7:03 pm

      I’m glad you are enjoying Ms. Cunningham’s book. It is a remarkable achievement and deserves any attention it gets. She is scheduled to give a lecture to the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco in October 17th if you want to hear her speak.

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