The Pinnacle of Permaculture: Tending the Wild

Book review: Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources by M. Kat Anderson, University of California Press, 2006

When the white man came to California, he found a verdant paradise: meadows thick with wildflowers and clover, stately groves of nut trees, abundant, healthy game and rivers full of fish. It was a land of endless bounty. The natives, often derogatorily called “Diggers” by the whites, seemed to live off this bounty in a lazy, hand-to-mouth sort of way.

Tending the Wild, a highly readable dissertation, takes this mythology apart. Anderson’s argument is that the native people of California were active stewards of the land.

Through coppicing, pruning, harrowing, sowing, weeding, burning, digging, thinning, and selective harvesting, they encouraged desired characteristics of individual plants, increased populations of useful plants, and altered the structures and compositions of plant communities. Regular burning of many types of vegetation across the state created better habitat for game, eliminated brush, minimized potential for catastrophic fires, and encouraged diversity of food crops. These harvest and management practices, on the whole, allowed for sustainable harvest of plants over centuries and possibly thousands of years.

Through extensive practical experience, the Indians had found a “middle way” between exploitation of the land and hands-off preservation of the land. They made use of the land, and in so doing, made the land better for all other creatures as well. They used resources, but managed to give back more. And in so doing, they shaped California.

“John Muir, celebrated environmentalist and founder of the Sierra Club, was an early proponent of the view and California landscape was a pristine wilderness before the arrival of the Europeans. Staring in awe at the lengthy visas of his beloved Yosemite Valley, or the extensive beds of golden and purple flowers in the Central Valley, Muir was eyeing what were really the fertile seed, bulb and green gathering grounds of the Miwok and Yokuts Indians, kept open and productive by centuries of carefully planned indigenous burning, harvesting and seed scattering.”

Our favorite idea to come out of this book is the notion that plants and animals need people. This is the philosophy of the Native American elders Anderson interviews. Rather as plants need birds to scatter their seeds, plants rely on humans to thin and prune them, protect them and spread them. The elders imagined an active, reciprocal relationship of use between humans, plants and animals. For them, “wilderness” is a pejorative term. When land is untended, it turns feral and declines. In a thriving land there is physical and spiritual intimacy between man, plants and animals.

All this is to say that California, at first European contact, was a garden–a garden that had been loved, tended and built up for generations. And the first settlers and explorers couldn’t see it. They saw a gift from God, one which they stripped bare in short order.

There is sadness in reading this, sadness in thinking of all that has been lost. But as Anderson contends, there is still a chance to preserve some of this knowledge. It lives on in the elders who remain whose grandparents remembered California before the gold rush. This book collects some of that knowledge, and talks about Indian management of certain species. While it cannot teach us everything, it provides a tantalizing vision of a non-exploitative yet productive relationship between man and nature, providing us a path for the future, if we can find the will to take it before it is too late.

Highly recommended read, especially for Californians, conservationists, gardeners, wild plant enthusiasts and those studying permaculture.


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  1. Great post – I went through my own journey of getting to this point when I started studying permaculture. You start by working with nature, then working in nature, then understanding that you’re part of nature as you work with the plants and creatures of the garden and the wild. I’m in Australia and your book (the Urban Homestead) sits happily on our bookshelf.

  2. this has been a favorite of mine for a while. totally changed the way i see california. hope you all have been well…

  3. You’re kidding, right? The average life expectancy for Indians was under 30 and a big part of that was a result of food insecurity. But what the hell the land sure was pretty!!! Give me a break.

  4. Anonymous: That is not accurate, and is not agreed upon by any serious scholar of Native America (Indians are still alive, by the way; your comment might be read as implying that they are ‘gone’).

    While food security is a serious issue throughout the world, it is well understood that comparable food security has *decreased* in toto over the past 400 years, while *improving* for a select few (like you and me, I’m assuming, if you are also in the USA), on the backs of others.

    Native American food-gathering styles are and have been profoundly diverse, ranging from intensive corn agriculture (much of MesoAmerica, and the Cahokia period), to the “Three Sisters,” which made it from (probably) SW US to NE US, to straightforward hunting and foraging. Controlled burns were frequently used in the West (especially California, near the Bay area). I could go on.

  5. Erik I think you are hung up on the “romance” of Indian culture and unaware of the reality. In case you didn’t understand my euphemism. Food insecurity when it comes to Indians meant starvation and die offs. Ironically you point out that modern farming methods have given us more food then we can eat and more diversity as well. I had to laugh at the “on the backs of others” comment. Let me guess you went to college and majored in one of the soft degree programs like anthropology. Or maybe you suffer from guilt from being born in the 20th century in the land of plenty. Either way I cannot imagine whose “backs” you mean.

  6. Erik, this is a great post. Connection to our landscape is a core part being human. At the risk of repeating some of what Anderson says, I’ll share some of my own personal observations:
    As a permaculturist, native plant enthusiast, ecologist, native californian, and professional wildland firefighter, I wholeheartedly agree with Anderson’s view of California. Regardless of your perception of what the food security may or may not have been, the landscape was undoubtedly tended intensively by native people. California was truly a great garden. Consider that as John Muir walked from Berkeley to the Sierras, in his words not being able to take a step without treading on a flower, nearly every one of those flowers was an edible tuber. Those tubers thrive when they are carefully dug and spread by people. One always had respect for the plants and gave back by never taking them all and spreading tubers and seeds. The dearth of flowers today is due to both the pressure from nonnative annual grasses and the absence of their gardeners.
    The glorious oaks that are emblematic of California were essentially family-group orchards. Despite the scrub jays hard at work doing their part to stash and forget acorns, spreading new trees, consider carefully any area you see where oaks grow. Don’t trust me, use your own observation. What is the average age of the trees you are looking at? Are there many young trees? (very few) Why not? Because in the last 150 years these groves have not been tended and planted as they were for millennia. I predict that we will see less and less oaks in California if we do not relearn the old ways of replanting and renew the cycles of burning that were so common.
    Early European settlers commented on the pall of smoke that filled California in the Fall. These were mostly not lightning caused or natural fires, but carefully planned burns by native people to clear their oak orchards and provide better hunting grounds. I have seen firsthand many times over how the native plants of California thrive on periodic low to moderate intensity burning. There are too many California pyrophites (plants that need fire to reproduce) to list here, but they range from trees to flowers to bunchgrasses essential to native basketmaking. Fires are not a danger to California (unless we make it so), but a necessity and instrument of renewal.
    I strongly feel that as part of our quest to rebuild a new culture from its current wasteland, this “great turning,” we must relearn ways of tending the landscape to provide diversity, habitat, and food. We must also accept fire as a necessity, an inevitability, and a powerful tool, and reflect that in our laws and building practices.

  7. The comment in the review, “When land is untended, it turns feral and declines,” and its apparent anthropocentric perspective, is quite a leap of faith. Many species beside Homo “tend” the land, from the mycelium of fungi to the pocket gopher to the tule elk. All are bioengineers. Before overstating the necessity of human agriculture, one must consider what the continent was like prior to human arrival, a mere 15,000 (or so) years before present. Was it in decline or had the redwood, hazelnut and hummingbird all evolved and thrived without human attention?

  8. Anonymous,

    I think the Native American assumption in that quote is that we are talking about a continent with humans and that we can’t put things back to their pre-human state. Like it or not we’re here and we have to engage with our environment. With a human presence there is no “wild”. If you haven’t read the book it’s well worth taking a look at. It describes a kind of agriculture very different from conventional ag–more like permaculture (which also acknowledges humans as part of the equation).

  9. @ Anonymous
    California was different from other area, due to the abundance of food, and the life expectancy there was around 35 years old, when it was around 32 for the first spanish that had contact with them.
    And the book is only about native Californians.

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