Saturday, July 7, 2012

Green and Golden California

California poppies around my Northern California neighborhood.

One of the many things I'm finding striking in my research about my home state of California, is how little I was taught about it in school. California history is fascinating. Its flora and fauna among the richest in North America.

The early contact between Europeans and native people, in this land so long isolated by the Pacific and the Sierras, had all the elements of a great drama. It was painful, sometimes humorous, always full of misunderstandings and missed opportunities, and ultimately tragic.  

A non-native plant in my garden. But it has been here for many centuries.

No one told me, until recently, that those weeds that pop up in all California gardens and look like wheat and make the hills so golden in summer, are actually called Spanish oats. They were brought here and seeded into the fields to feed the Spanish cattle. 

It makes sense, now that I know that and look at the weed.

The best part of this research involves reading the many journals written by the first Europeans on the scene--now very much available. The indigenous people apparently couldn't figure out, for example, why the first missionaries and soldiers they met had no women with them. Father Junipero Serra suggested the missions import settlers with families, as soon as possible, so the Indians wouldn't continue to think the padres were descended from their mules.

The explorers, for their part, were astonished at the way the Indian men looked. They wore no clothing at all.

Writes Father Pedro Font in 1776: "The men, completely naked, sometimes wear a string or something else around their waist (which covers nothing) and bundle their hair to hold a stick or a feather ... "

1816 drawing by Louis Choris of two Cholvon men hunting near San Francisco Bay. From the California Historical Society, reprinted in Lands of Promise and Despair.

Juan Bautista De Anza, who led the expedition up the California coast on which Fr. Font traveled, asked one of the native men, through a translator, why they didn't cover up, even a little. The Indian told him it was considered too effeminate.

It also must have been pretty cold at times. 

Fr. Font wrote one of the best accounts of the journey. From his diary, he appears to be both a brilliant and fussy man. A ready explorer, he uses a compass and sextant to take map readings for Anza, and uses a graphometer to measure the large tree that gave Palo Alto its name.

At the same time, he frequently complains about the weather, the dirt, the fleas, and the natives. At one point he writes: "They were so filthy, so close and so foul smelling with their constant passing of wind, that it was impossible to breathe."

Well, they did eat a lot of acorns and pine nuts.

I don't know if it was the naked men or the passing of wind or the numerous other graphic details of the interaction between these two alien peoples that kept all this out of California public schools. But, I'm sorry it took me so long to learn about it.

I wouldn't have done the research, if I hadn't been curious about the apricot and how it came to California. Once again, I have more for which I must thank this wondrous fruit.

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Don Meuler said...

One can only imagine how ludicrous the settlers appeared to the natives, too. But the Indians must have had something to wear when the snow got, well, deep...

Robin Chapman said...

In the valley and the foothills, there is no snow, so the coastal Indians didn't face that. But the fog can be chilly. However, I guess they felt it was too feminine to cover up, though they did have a sort of rabbit cape they wore to keep warm I think ... yes I feel the encounters between the two peoples was like aliens landing in the U.S. Very, very strange indeed. Alas, it was the Indians who suffered.