A reconstruction of San Francisco around 1300 A.D. from Nob Hill, looking east across the bay toward Oakland. © Laura Cunningham
“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 Stellar’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 fulll-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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