Sunday, November 14, 2010

What Did California Look Like Before the Europeans?

Grizzly bears at the shore

When Laura Cunningham was growing up in Kensington, CA  she used to walk to school and wonder what the San Franciso East Bay looked like before buildings and roads covered everything.

That curiosity about the landscape continued as Cunningham got a degree in paleontology at Cal and natural science illustration degree at UC Santa Cruz. So in the early 1990s, Cunningham began to research what California looked like when it was teeming with elk and antelope rather than cars and people. The result is A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California, a remarkable picture book published in October by Berkeley’s Heyday Press.

Flipping though the pages is like taking a step back in time. Cunningham has created realistic paintings of the early California landscape, beautifully recreated in the book. There is a  painting of grizzly bears resting under a large oak tree and one of them eating the carcass of a whale that has washed up on shore. There are paintings of marshes full of birds and small mammals and paintings of native grasses.  Cunningham also includes “before and after” paintings, such as El Cerrito Plaza in the 21st century and the same spot thousands of years earlier.

“Vernal pools, protected lagoons, grassy hills rich in bunchgrasses and, where the San Francisco Bay is today, ancient bison and mammoths roaming a vast grassland,” reads a description on the Heyday website. “Through the use of historical ecology, Laura Cunningham walks through these forgotten landscapes to uncover secrets about the past, explore what our future will hold, and experience the ever-changing landscape of California.”

El Cerrito Plaza today
Grizzly bears eating acorns (at El Cerrito Plaza thousands of years ago)

Cunningham spent years learning about California’s flora and fauna. In addition to poring through books and handling fossils at  libraries at UC Berkeley and around the state, she hung out on ridge tops to catch a glimpse of a California condor. (They used to live in the Bay Area but are now only live south of the Monterey area.) She traveled to Yellowstone National Park to observe grizzly bears up close and hiked to remote hills to find patches of native grasses. She discovered some animals that once lived in California but no longer do, like the Gong, an albatross-like bird that has a distinctive cry. Now it can only be found in the South Pacific, she said.

“What impressed me most was the sheer abundance of wildlife,” said Cunningham, 45, who now lives in a small Nevada desert town.  “We’ve lost a lot of the abundance and biodiversity of the state. It must have been beautiful.”

Downtown Oakland thousands of years ago

This article originally appeared on Berkeleyside.

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