Filmed on Monday October 17, 02011

Laura Cunningham

Ten Millennia of California Ecology

Ecologist/artist Laura Cunningham is the author and illustrator of A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California.

Ecologically, the past is always present if you know where and how to look. Paleontologist-biologist-artist Laura Cunningham spent 20 years exploring California's archives and relic lands to reconstruct exactly what life used to look like here over the past 10,000 years. Her beautiful images and her insights about long-period ecological change are collected in her new book, A STATE OF CHANGE: Forgotten Landscapes of California.

Like many regions, California is busy restoring portions of the natural environment to previous conditions---native meadows, riparian woodlands, salt marshes, old-growth forests, along with the animals that used to populate them. But there is no static past to restore TO. With Cunningham's guidance we can choose to restore to a particular period: say, before the white invasion; or, during the Medieval Warm Period; or, before the human invasion; or, during the Ice Ages. With her inspiration, we can begin to envisage the ecological changes coming over the next 10,000 years.

Eco-continuity in California

California ecology used to be much more driven by floods and fires, Cunningham said, showing with her paintings how the Great Valley would become a vast inland sea, like a huge vernal pool progressing each year from navigable water to intense flower displays to elk-grazed grassland. Lake Merritt in Oakland was a salt water inlet. On the Albany mudflats grizzly bears would tunnel into a beached humpback whale for food, joined by California condors. Every fall at the Carquinez Strait a million four-foot-long Chinook salmon headed inland to spawn.

Only 300 years ago the whole Bay Area was grasslands, routinely burned by the local Indians. There were oaks in the valleys, redwoods in the Berkeley Hills, and extensive oak savannahs inland. The hills were greener more of the year than now, with fire-freshened grass attracting elk, and native perennial grasses drawing moisture with their deep roots.

Cunningham researched the ancient landscapes using old maps, photos, paintings, scientific reports, sundry local experts, and 30 years of fieldwork. She witnessed the last wild condors feeding on a calf carcass, chasing off a golden eagle. (The condors are now back in the wild, spotted as far north as Mt. Hamilton.) To learn about the behavior and ecological effects of wolves and grizzly bears, she studied them in Yellowstone Park. (The California golden bear was enormous, up to 2,200 pounds.)

Along the Pacific shore there used to be 10-ton Steller's sea cows (extinct in 1768), a giant petrel with an 8-foot wingspan, and a flightless diving goose that ate mussels. Further back, in the Ice Ages before 12,000 years ago, the ocean was lower, and San Francisco Bay was a savannah occupied by huge bison (6 feet at the shoulder), a native full-sized horse similar to the African quagga (Cunningham shows it with quagga-like stripes), Columbian mammoths, and the giant short-faced bear (10 feet tall standing up).

For current Californians Cunningham encourages local restoration of old ecosystems, perhaps learning to live with more flood and fire. With her multi-millennial perspective, she's pretty relaxed about climate change. As much as long-term ecology is about continuity, it is about change.

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