“Tending the Wild:” Our changing relationship with nature

We recently introduced our readers to a book about the land management practices of Native Americans in California, Tending the Wild:  Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources.  (1) Drawing from this valuable resource, we will describe how the relationship of humans with nature has changed several times since the arrival of humans in California approximately 12,000 years ago.  We will conclude by raising questions about our current relationship with nature, as reflected in our land management practices.

The relationship of Native Americans with nature

Basket CA Native AmericanWe will let the author of Tending the Wild speak for Native Americans, based on her extensive research of their culture and land-management practices:

“Although native ways of using and tending the earth were diverse, the people were nonetheless unified by a fundamental land use ethic:  one must interact respectfully with nature and coexist with all life-forms.  This ethic transcended cultural and political boundaries and enabled sustained relationships between human societies and California’s environments over millennia.  The spiritual dimension of this ethic is a cosmology that casts humans as part of the natural system, closely related to all life-forms.  In this view, all non-human creatures are ‘kin’ or ‘relatives,’ nature is the embodiment of the human community, and all of nature’s denizens and elements—the plants, the animals, the rocks, and the water—are people.  As ‘people,’ plants and animals possessed intelligence, which meant that they could serve in the role of teachers and help humans in countless ways—relaying messages, forecasting the weather, teaching what is good to eat and what will cure an ailment.” (1)

We emphasize that Native American culture considered humans a part of nature because this viewpoint provides contrast to modern interpretations of the relationship between humans and nature. 

Exploitation of nature by early settlers

When Europeans began to establish settlements in California in the late 18th century, they brought with them an entirely different viewpoint about their relationship with nature.  Natural resources were to be exploited and humans were the master of the natural world which was in their service.

Western pioneer ranch
Western pioneer ranch. Painting by John Olson Hammerstad, 1842-1925.


The first phase of European settlement was the importation of huge herds of livestock by the Spanish coming from Mexico:

“During the Mission era…grazing was among the activities that caused the greatest damage.  Coastal prairies, oak savannas, prairie patches in coastal redwood forests, and riparian habitats, all rich in plant species diversity and kept open and fertile through centuries of Indian burning, became grazing land for vast herds of cattle, sheep, goats, hogs, and horses owned by Spanish missions and rancheros.  By 1832 the California missions had more than 420,000 head of cattle, 320,000 sheep, goats, and hogs, and 60,000 horses and mules…overgrazing eliminated native plant populations, favored alien annuals, and caused erosion…A great variety of alien [plant] species were introduced inadvertently during the Mission Period.  Research has shown that European forbs and grasses…were brought into California at this time, contained in adobe bricks, livestock feed, livestock bedding, and other materials.  Soon these alien [plants] overwhelmed the native species, markedly changing the character and diversity of grasslands and other habitats west of the inner Coast Ranges.”  (1)

Tending the Wild reports that during this early phase of European settlement, Native Americans were quick to adapt to the changing landscape.  They incorporated useful new plants into their diets.  Likewise, we see today new plants and animals quickly enter the food web.


Hydraulic gold mining in California.
Hydraulic gold mining in California.

These changes in the landscape paled in comparison to the exploitation of the land that began in 1849 when gold was discovered in California and the huge influx of Americans of diverse European descent arrived.  Here are a few examples:

  • “…by the 1870s ‘more men made their living in the broader geography and economy of farming—48,000—than in all the mines of the Sierra footholls—36,000.’ To accommodate the acreage devoted to growing crops, marshes were drained, underground water was tapped by artesian wells, streams and rivers were dammed and diverted for irrigation, and lands were fenced.  In the process huge tracts of former native grasslands, riparian corridors, and vernal pools were converted to artificial, human-managed agricultural systems.” (1)
  • “Five million acres of wetland in California have been reduced by 91% through diking, draining, and filling for agriculture, housing, or other purposes.” (1)
  • By 1900, 40% of California’s 31 million acres of forest were logged.
  • “By the early 1900s, the numbers of marine mammals, wildfowl, elk, deer, bear, and other birds and mammals had been so drastically reduced that Joseph Grinnell would write, ‘Throughout California we had been forcibly impressed with the rapid depletion everywhere evident among the game birds and mammals.’” (1)
  • Between 1769 and 1845, the population of Native Americans in California dropped from an estimated 310,000 to 150,000. Between 1845 and 1855, the population of Native Americans dropped from 150,000 to 50,000.

Romanticizing Nature

Meanwhile, in Europe and the East Coast of the US, a new view of nature was being articulated.  The Romantic movement viewed nature as an escape from the stress of urban life, a tranquil retreat from civilization.  In California, John Muir was strongly influenced by Romanticism: 

“Muir and those with similar views responded to the destruction and exploitation of California’s natural resources with a preservationist ethic that valued nature above all else but which defined nature as that which was free of human influenceThus while he championed the setting aside of parks as public land, Muir also contributed to the modern notion that the indigenous inhabitants of the state had no role in shaping its natural attributes.” (1)

Muir was unable to fit Native Americans into his idealized view of nature.  He wrote this account of Miwok Indians in the Sierra Nevada in 1869:

“’We had another visitor from Browns’ Flat to-day, an old Indian woman with a basket on her back.  Her dress was calico rags, far from clean.  In every way she seemed sadly unlike Nature’s neat well-dressed animals, though living like them on the bounty of wilderness.  Strange that mankind alone is dirty.  Had she been clad in fur, or cloth woven of grass or shreddy bark, like the juniper or libocedrus mats, she might have seemed a rightful part of wilderness; like a good wolf at least, or bear.  But no point of view that I have found are such debased fellow beings a whit more natural than the glaring tailored tourists we saw that frightened the birds and the squirrels.’” (1)

Sharp Park, Pacifica, CA.  Photo by Erica Reder, SF Public Press
Sharp Park, Pacifica, CA. Photo by Erica Reder, SF Public Press

In this romanticized view of nature, humans are not welcome Humans defile the purity of nature.  This is the prevailing viewpoint today among those who consider themselves environmentalists, park advocates, and conservationists.  They advocate for “wilderness” where “humans may visit, but not remain.”  They post signs, advising visitors to look but not touch.  Their “restoration” projects put nature behind a fence.  They complain about immigration.

The condescending attitude articulated by John Muir toward Native Americans was instrumental in our ignorance of their land management practices.  Europeans considered Native Americans primitive and therefore did not expect to learn anything useful from them.  Europeans imported and grew their own food from their original homes because they were unaware of how local food sources could be grown and used.  Our knowledge of Native American culture is recent and it comes too late to ever be fully informed because those who tended the land are long since gone.  Furthermore, this new knowledge of land management practices of Native Americans is not well known, certainly not among native plant advocates who are attempting to re-create a landscape which was created by methods they do not understand.

Redefining ecological “restoration”

The author of Tending the Wild admires Native American culture as well as the landscape that was created by their land management practices.  Therefore, she concludes her book with a proposal that we adopt their land management methods:

“What then, should be the goal of ecological restoration?  Restoring landscapes and ecosystems to a ‘natural’ condition may be impossible if that natural condition never existed…Restorationists must at the very least acknowledge the indigenous influence in shaping the California landscape.  This chapter advocates an additional step—using indigenous people’s knowledge and methods to carry out the restoration process, to return landscapes to historical conditions and restore the place of humans in this continuing management.”  (1)

In our previous post, we described some of the land management practices of Native Americans, particularly the importance of setting fires.  Adopting these management practices for ecological restorations would require us to make a permanent commitment to setting fires.  Fires pollute the air, release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and endanger lives and property.  Therefore, this is surely not a proposition that can be reasonably applied to our densely populated urban parks.  The maximum population of Native Americans prior to the arrival of Europeans is estimated to have been 310,000.  The population of California was estimated to be over 38 million in 2013.  Land management practices that were appropriate for a human population of only 310,000 are not appropriate for a population of over 38 million.

Furthermore, the land management practices of Native Americans were useful for their culture.  They tended the landscape in order to feed, clothe, heal, and house themselves.  If that specific landscape is no longer useful for those purposes, why would we consider it an ideal landscape?  In what sense would it be superior to the landscape that occurs naturally without setting fires or intensively gardening our open spaces?

A more realistic paradigm is needed

We believe a more sustainable paradigm for managing nature is needed.  Although we won’t presume to define this new paradigm, we will suggest some parameters:

  • Humans are as much a part of nature as any other animal. Therefore, conservation goals must accommodate the presence of humans.  However, humans must respect plants and animals as equal partners in achieving conservation goals.
  • Since we live in a free society, we must assume that human populations will grow in proportion to the choices of humans. And since we are a nation of laws, we must assume that immigration will occur as allowed by our laws.  Conservation goals must be consistent with the realities of human population density.
  • Conservation goals should look forward, not back. Goals should reflect the changes in the environment that have already taken place and anticipate the changes that are expected in the future.
  • The distinction between native and non-native species should be only one of several criteria to determine whether a species “belongs here.” If plants and animals are sustaining themselves without human subsidy, we should acknowledge and appreciate the functions they perform in the ecosystem.  This approach will reduce the use of herbicides, now being used to eradicate plants perceived to be “non-native,” in our parks and open spaces.
  • Conservation goals should be realistic within the confines of available resources and in competition with other priorities.
  • There are pros and cons to every change we make in the landscape. Whenever we alter the landscape, if our land management methods damage the environment by using pesticides, killing animals or destroying their food resources and homes, contributing to greenhouse gases, restricting recreational access, etc., we must have solid evidence that the benefits to the environment will be greater than the damage we foresee.  If there is no net benefit, we should leave it be.

Can you add to or suggest revisions of this list of a new conservation ethic?  Surely there are as many opinions as there are readers of Million Trees.  We would like to hear your ideas.



  1. M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources, University of California Press, 2005 (This is the source of most of the information in this article.)

“Tending the Wild:” Implications of land management by Native Americans in California

In our last post we told our readers about the usefulness of non-native plants which are closely associated with human civilization and are therefore found everywhere, but are considered weeds.  We don’t wish to leave our readers with the impression that native plants are not at least equally useful, so we will counter-balance our last post with this report based on a book about California Native Americans:  Tending the Wild:  Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources. (1)  The author, M. Kat Anderson, is the national ethnoecologist of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and an Associate in the Department of Plant Science at UC Davis.

Aboriginal societies have been categorized by anthropologists as either hunter-gatherer or agricultural societies.  California Native Americans were considered hunter-gatherer societies because they were not sedentary, tied to a specific site where they tilled the land to grow crops, and they had no domesticated animals.  Tending the Wild challenges this categorization based on an exhaustive survey of the land management practices of California Native Americans.  The author proposes a middle-ground between the dichotomous categories to reflect the many ways in which Native Americans essentially gardened wild plants to produce their food and other utilitarian objects, while also acknowledging the seasonal mobility of Native American society.

Karok basket maker, 1894.  Smithsonian photo archive
Karok basket maker, 1894. Smithsonian photo archive

Fire was the essential tool

Million Trees has reported many times that California Native Americans intentionally set fires, but until reading Tending the Wild we did not appreciate how essential fires were to their culture, nor did we understand the many purposes for which fires were set.  Here is an incomplete list of the many reasons why Native Americans set fires:

  • Fires maintained grassland by eliminating shrubs that naturally encroach on grassland in the absence of fire.
  • In the absence of fire, thatch of dried grass accumulates when grasses die back during the dry season. This thatch retards the germination of a new crop of young grass.
  • Young grass which sprouts after a fire is attractive to grazing animals which were hunted. Young grass was also preferable for basket-making because it is straight and pliable.
  • Fire reduces shrub vegetation which competes with grasses for light and water. Land cleared by fires was then seeded with the plants most useful to Native Americans.
  • Fire recycles nutrients in the soil.
  • Fire was used to smoke small mammals from their burrows.
  • Fires were used to corral grasshoppers and other insects considered edible for harvesting.
  • Fire was used to reduce insect populations that feed on the plants eaten by Native Americans. For example, the duff beneath oaks was burned before acorns fell so that acorns were not eaten by insects.
  • Fire was used to germinate seeds of the many species of native plants that require fire for germination.
  • Periodic fire was considered a means of preventing wildfires fueled by accumulated dead vegetation.

Other land management methods

Pomo gathering seeds, 1924.  Smithsonian photo archive
Pomo gathering seeds, 1924. Smithsonian photo archive

Fire was one of many management methods used by California Native Americans to foster the plants that were most useful to them.  In some cases, these practices maximized their food sources and in others they produced useful materials such as those needed to make baskets or plants thought to have medicinal properties.

Tending the Wild reports that 60-70% of the diet of California Native Americans was from plants.  Miwoks report using 48 species of plants for fresh greens compared to just a dozen salad greens typically found in a modern market.  California Native Americans ate 15 of 31 native clover species. Clover seed was broadcast-seeded onto burned ground because it improved the fertility of the soil by restoring nitrogen to the burned soil.

Miwok mortars where seeds and nuts were ground.  Smithsonian archive
Miwok mortars where seeds and nuts were ground. Smithsonian archive

Baskets were equally important to their culture.  Every family typically had 22 different types of baskets for a variety of purposes such as storage, food gathering, beating seeds from plants, cooking, water storage and transport, fish traps, small-animal traps, etc.  Seventy-eight plant species were used by California Native Americans to make these baskets.

Here is an incomplete list of the methods used to foster the plants most useful to California Native Americans:

  • The seeds of favorite plants were planted to be available close to living quarters. Native tobacco is an example of a plant found around Native American settlements, presumably planted there.
  • The seeds, bulbs, corms, rhizomes etc., of favorite plants were collected and transplanted close to settlements.
  • Bulbs, corms, roots, rhizomes were harvested selectively to preserve the plants which were stimulated by the thinning of the plant.
  • Fields of useful plants were weeded to create monocultures that made harvesting more efficient.
  • Plants were pruned and coppiced to maximize fruit production.
  • Plants were pruned to produce the straight twigs and grasses useful to make baskets and arrow shafts.
  • Plants were irrigated to promote growth and maximize fruit production.
  • Plants were treated by cooking, soaking, etc., to remove toxins so they could be safely eaten.

Impact on the landscape

Over the thousands of years that California Native Americans practiced these land management practices, the landscape was altered by them:

  • Plants that did not tolerate frequent fires died out, creating a landscape that is dominated by plants that are adapted to fire. Jon Keeley (USGS) informs us that over 200 native plant species are “fire endemics,” requiring fire to germinate and dying out within a few years after a fire. (2)
  • The Europeans arriving at the end of the 18th Century found a landscape dominated by grassland because repeated fires prevented succession to shrubs and forests. The absence of shade produced a landscape of native plant species that require full sun.
  • Forests were open and park-like with little understory, which had been repeatedly cleared by frequent fires.
  • The plants which were most useful to Native Americans were more likely to survive than those that were not useful because they were tended and competing vegetation burned or weeded.
  • The natural ranges of the plants which were useful were altered by the land management practices of Native Americans. They were transplanted and grown from seed where they were accessible to the community.

What are the implications for ecological “restorations?”

The landscape selected by native plant advocates as the goal of ecological “restorations” is the landscape that existed in 1769 when Europeans first laid eyes on San Francisco Bay.  Now we know that it was a landscape that had been altered by thousands of years of occupation and cultivation by California Native Americans.  There are at least two major flaws in the selection of this landscape as the goal of “restoration:”

  • Native ranges reflect the choices made by the Native Americans. They do not necessarily reflect the forces of nature.  The modern obsession with “where plants belong” is based on a fantasy of why plants were found where they were when Europeans arrived in California.
  • The land management practices of Native Americans are no longer being practiced, which means that the plants they preferred are no longer receiving the care that ensured their survival in the past. Humans no longer set fire to the landscape every year.  Therefore, the landscape has changed and will continue to change to correspond to changed practices:

The relationship between humans and nature has changed since California was occupied solely by Native Americans.  Consequently, nature has changed in ways that reflect how humans now use the land.  The author of Tending the Wild acknowledges that her book conflicts with the goals of ecological “restoration:”

“If restoration is aimed at returning ecosystems to the condition in which they existed before Western settlement degraded them, then that condition is surely not an entirely natural one.  As we now know, many of the classic landscapes of California—coastal prairies, majestic valley oak groves, montane meadows, the oak-meadow mosaic of Yosemite Valley—were in fact shaped by the unremitting labor of generations of native people.  Moreover, these and other communities were managed intensively and regularly by these people, and that many have disappeared or changed radically in the absence of management shows they were not self-sustaining.” (1)

In our next post, we will think about how our relationship with nature has changed and what that means for the future of the management of our remaining open spaces. Given this revised understanding of the “native” landscape, how must we revise our goals for ecological “restoration?”

  1. M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources, University of California Press, 2005 (This is the source of most of the information in this article.)
  2. Jon Keeley, et. al., Fire in Mediterranean Ecosystems, Cambridge University Press, 2012