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(Historical) Explorations

Discussions of natural history can’t escape a parallel human history. Living in Western North America, shadows of the multifarious frontiersman haven’t slipped from the horizon. I’ve been dwelling heavily on these explorers, here for new opportunities, to claim land for their sovereignty, or to assess the biotic diversity held in vast “unexplored” territories.

In the past weeks I’ve had an inordinate amount of time indoors, to think, read, and write. I’m supposed to be outside working. Excessive rain, snow, and wind has kept our daily point counts of birds at bay. If your goal is to detect the full species array and individual abundances, counting in marginal weather will not give you accurate results. If you doubt that rain, snow, or wind can effect accuracy, or think that maybe I’m just being a wimp, go outside on a less than ideal spring morning and listen for bird song. You may hear some but compare that to a nice, warm and dry, spring morning. Then you’ll understand.

Because of all the time indoors, I’ve not had much face time with nature and it’s got me in a philosophical mood. As a modern field biologist, you are sometimes driven to your limits of endurance and forced to put up with uncomfortable situations. But when it all pans out, we still have it pretty easy compared to people who first started exploring the West in the name of science.

While I don’t wish to wholly glorify explorations in Western North America, which ultimately displaced and exploited hundreds of thousands of native peoples, they are certainly fascinating to the modern day natural historian. The most famous of all explorations in the West was of course the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Between 1804 and 1806, it penetrated the Northwest Territory overland, surveying in the name of the United States for what made up part of the Louisiana Purchase (of land that none of the parties involved owned). President Jefferson wasn’t just looking to survey a land grab though, he wanted the expedition to collect and record on pretty much any area of natural science they could. While neither of the party leaders were trained naturalists, they came back with a formidable collection of specimens and journals. I have occasional encounters with two charismatic birds that bear their names, Lewis’s Woodpeckers and Clark’s Nutcrackers. There’s no ignoring these explorers, especially in the Pacific Northwest, yet the biota of the west are riddled with the whispers of early scientific explorers.

Out my door, I can look across camp, through numerous Douglas Firs to a great sentry of a pine. It stands straight, with a smooth, even bark and massive branches, a good height above neighboring trees. A Scottish botanist by the name of David Douglas, described this formidable tree, Pinus lambertiana, the Sugar Pine. The sugar part of the name came from the sweet resin, the lambertiana for Aylmer Bourke Labert a British botanist who wrote a folio on the genus Pinus. When Douglas ventured into the Willamette Valley of Oregon during his explorations of the Northwest with the Hudson’s Bay Company, he eventually traveled far enough south to encounter these giants. Muir, perhaps the most famous of naturalists in California would later consider it as the “king of the conifers.”

Those Douglas Firs, among the most common of trees in the West, bear Douglas’s name, along with hundreds of other flora and fauna he first described. The etymology of plant and animal names world wide is one big weaving romp through a lot of dead white dudes, but Douglas as an actual explorer certainly stands out as one of the most interesting in the West. He endured real hardship in finding new plants for the Royal Horticultural Society, introducing over 240 new plants to England for cultivation and science. Jack Nisbet’s book The Collector is a fascinating account of David Douglas’s life, particularly if you are from Washington or Oregon.

During one of my foiled attempts at work last week, I was only a mile and a half from camp and decided that instead of hitching a ride with my partner, that I’d just walk back overland. I had a GPS with me, in case I got lost, but I was fairly confident I should have no trouble. As I slipped, tripped, and slogged my way back, I was constantly reminded of the hard work of early pioneers and explorers. Walking overland blindly isn’t an easy proposition, even with all my modern accessories and some knowledge of the land before me. Out of laziness, I didn’t put on my waterproof jacket or pants and wound up soaked. It took me an hour to make the hike, with several stream crossings, a 1000 ft down climb with a follow up 600 ft scramble. The whole time I was jumping logs, pushing through trees and brush laden with the morning’s rain. It wasn’t a simple stroll.

A dryer and a drawer bursting with clean, dry clothes was waiting for me. Early collectors, prospectors, fur trappers, and settlers had none of this. No fully waterproof coats (beyond oiled cloth), their clothes were mostly cotton and wool, and were often walking relatively blindly ahead even with the help of guides and friendly tribes. Unlike native peoples, they were often ignorant of how to survive off the land beyond hunting. In short, they were always on their toes. They traveled by horseback, wagon, and boat, so when mountains loomed ahead or large rivers weaved nearby they had to very careful about what routes they chose. I just look at a map and drive through land that must have been horribly daunting to travel, even 100 years ago. The Sierras are still indomitable mountains no matter how you look at them.

In California, European exploration began much earlier than the late 18th century when the first major explorations in the Northwest happened. Spanish and Russian exploration in the mid 18th century included members, mostly botanists, that were keen on the natural world. However, almost all of this was restricted to coastal regions and adjoining tributaries. No European or American travelers with even the briefest of training as a naturalist had breached the Sierras until 1844, only six years before California achieved statehood. The communities of the Northern Sierras, where I currently reside, were first settled by people of European descent during the time of the 1849 California Goldrush. Fourty-niners rushed into the region, founding the town where I live, Meadow Valley, in 1850. Before that the only people living in the region were Maidu Native Americans, residing in summer villages in Big Meadows (even they wouldn’t stay the winter), which is now Lake Almanor, a man made reservoir. Mt. Lassen, a reminder of the boundary between the volcanic Cascade range and the inert granite of the Sierras watches over from the North.

What I’m getting at in all this discussion of history, seemingly unrelated to birds and nature, is a two fold message; that we have haven’t lived this way all that long. Even a place so seemingly grooved out by humans as California hasn’t even been this way for 200 years. Its a reminder that the world still has unknowns, unexplored areas. We don’t know everything – how could we?

Equally I reminisce on how living used to be. I wouldn’t last a week alone in the wilderness in the Sierras and neither would most Americans. People 150 years ago did passably well (with the exception of the Donner Party), with skills that most of us have tossed by the wayside because our practical use for them is nil. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy my modern comforts, but it’s easy to forget as society persists, that we’re still privy to the elements and should know how to survive without electricity if need be! Not too long ago, Americans had to cooperate much more fully with nature to survive. In more ways than we likely know, we should still be paying more attention to how we with coexist with the world around us. Of all the things that scare me about being a contemporary human is that we are so easily blinded as to what our actions really mean when they can be so far reaching.

Yet, when I stand under that Sugar Pine or look down the Feather River, I still can’t help but marvel at how recently human history here happened, even the native people are relative newcomers. I don’t furrow my brow, languish in worry about the world, I just take in the chlorophyl bath and enjoy.  If you don’t know how to enjoy it, then how can you save it?

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