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Tending the Wild by M. Kat Anderson (University of California Press)

Review by Mark Leighton

This is a book about how the Indians shaped the native environment of California over hundreds of years.  They cut, dug, sowed seeds and burned to tend the native environment for their benefit.  Plants that provided food were tended and cultivated (they used over 400 plants for food). Plants that provide materials they needed and used, were also managed.  The early European settlers described California as park like, big trees with no brush, meadows of grass and flowers.  They appreciated the beauty and took advantage of the resources but failed to understand the way the Indians were managing the environment.

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The result is a California that looks very different today.  Forests that are overgrown with brush, small tress.  Meadows that are being taken over by the forest.  A California that is much more in danger of large wildfires.  We only have to look around us to see the problems of untended environment. 

The major management tool for the Indians was fire.  They burned and burned and burned.  Because of these many small, low intensity fires, the brush was kept down, the trees useful to the Indians grew big providing lots of food.  For example: they burned under every oak tree they collected acorns.  They did this to keep the area clear of brush that made it easier to gather acorns and to rid the trees of insect pests that lived in the leaf litter and destroyed the acorns.

The author does suggest that California could use fire as a management tool more.  But more importantly the author is suggesting that our environment needs to be tended.  There is the middle ground between those who would like to just let nature take its course without any human intervention and those that want to use all the resources of nature without any concern for sustainability or the consequences for destroying the environment. 

In our area the gold rush destroyed most of the forest.  Look at the old photos of Placerville there are no trees!  Then the trees started to grow back but without any management other than what was done to establish a few orchards, farms, vineyards and build houses.  In between all this is nature largely untouched. Very dangerous, if there is a fire because there is so much fuel!  So, what do we do?

Firstly, we can’t change things instantly.  The Indian shaped the forests over 1000 years.  But we can begin by going beyond the 100 feet of defensible space and start to clear out the brush, the dead trees, the unhealthy trees and begin to create a more park like environment with big trees and no brush.  Tending the wild does not mean destroying the environment but managing it so it is suitable and safe for us to live.

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