Land and Animals

Published in: GIA Newsletter, Vol 10, No 2 (Fall 1999)

Malcolm Margolin
We present this excerpt from Malcolm Margolin's The Ohlone Way, as an introduction to the culture and natural history of the Bay Area, inviting GIA members and guests coming to San Francisco for the November meeting to see behind the region's dense, urban intensity to its inherent spirit. Author Margolin is a long-time Berkeley resident whose published books include The Earth Manual: How to Work on Wild Land Without Taming It (1975), The Way We Lived: California Indian Reminiscences, Stories, and Songs (1981), and The Ohlone Way — recently ranked by the San Francisco Chronicle as one of the best one-hundred nonfiction books of the last century written by an author west of the Rockies. Margolin reports: “It was number 69, right after Lonesome Traveler by Jack Kerouac and followed immediately by An Autobiography by Ansel Adams. It was fun to be in such company.” Margolin's publishing house, Heyday Books, produces works on California history, natural history, literature, travel, and Native American life. He also is publisher and co-editor of the quarterly News from Native California, devoted to the history and ongoing culture of California Indians.

Modern residents would hardly recognize the Bay Area as it was in the days of the Ohlones. Tall, sometimes shoulder-high stands of native bunchgrasses (now almost entirely replaced by the shorter European annuals) covered the vast meadowlands and the tree-dotted savannahs. Marshes that spread out for thousands of acres fringed the shores of the Bay. Thick oak-bay forests and redwood forests covered much of the hills.

The intermingling of grasslands, savannahs, salt- and freshwater marshes, and forests created wildlife habitats of almost unimaginable richness and variety. The early explorers and adventurers, no matter how well-travelled in other parts of the globe, were invariably struck by the plentiful animal life here. “There is not any country in the world which more abounds in fish and game of every description,” noted the French sea captain, la Perouse. Flocks of geese, ducks, and seabirds were so enormous that when alarmed by a rifle shot they were said to rise “in a dense cloud with a noise like that of a hurricane.” Herds of elk — “monsters with tremendous horns,” as one of the early missionaries described them — grazed the meadowlands in such numbers that they were often compared with great herds of cattle. Pronghorn antelopes, in herds of one or two hundred, or even more, dotted the grassy slopes.

Packs of wolves hunted the elk, antelope, deer, rabbits, and other game. Bald eagles and giant condors glided through the air. Mountain lions, bobcats, and coyotes — now seen only rarely — were a common sight. And of course there was the grizzly bear. “He was horrible, fierce, large, and fat,” wrote Father Pedro Font, an early missionary, and a most apt description it was. These enormous bears were everywhere, feeding on berries, lumbering along the beaches, congregating beneath oak trees during the acorn season, and stationed along nearly every stream and creek during the annual runs of salmon and steelhead.

It is impossible to estimate how many thousands of bears might have lived in the Bay Area at the time of the Ohlones. Early Spanish settlers captured them readily for their famous bear-and-bull fights, ranchers shot them by the dozen to protect their herds of cattle and sheep, and the early Californians chose the grizzly as the emblem for their flag and their statehood. The histories of many California townships tell how bears collected in troops around the slaughterhouses and sometimes wandered out onto the main streets of towns to terrorize the inhabitants. To the Ohlones the grizzly bear must have been omnipresent, yet today there is not a single wild grizzly bear left in all of California.

Life in the ocean and in the unspoiled bays of San Francisco and Monterey was likewise plentiful beyond modern conception. There were mussels, clams, oysters, abalones, seabirds, and sea otters in profusion. Sea lions blackened the rocks at the entrance to San Francisco Bay and in Monterey Bay they were so abundant that to one missionary they seemed to cover the entire surface of the water “like a pavement.”

Long, wavering lines of pelicans threaded the air. Clouds of gulls, cormorants, and other shore birds rose, wheeled, and screeched at the approach of a human. Rocky islands like Alcatraz (which means pelican in Spanish) were white from the droppings of great colonies of birds.
In the days before the nineteenth century whaling fleets, whales were commonly sighted within the bays and along the ocean coast. An early visitor to Monterey Bay wrote: “It is impossible to conceive of the number of whales with which we were surrounded, or their familiarity; they every half minute spouted within half a pistol shot of the ships and made a prodigious stench in the air.” Along the bays and ocean beaches whales were often seen washed up on shore, with grizzly bears in “countless troops” — or in many cases Indians — streaming down the beach to feast on their remains.

Nowadays, especially during the summer months, we consider most of the Bay Area to be a semi-arid country. But from the diaries of the early explorers the picture we get is of a moist, even swampy land. In the days of the Ohlones the water table was much closer to the surface, and indeed the first settlers who dug wells here regularly struck clear, fresh water within a few feet.

Water was virtually everywhere, especially where the land was flat. The explorers suffered far more from mosquitoes, spongy earth, and hard-to-ford rivers than they did from thirst — even in the heat of summer. Places that are now dry were then described as having springs, brooks, ponds — even fairly large lakes. In the days before channelizations, all the major rivers — the Carmel, Salinas, Pajaro, Coyote Creek, and Alameda Creek — as well as many minor streams, spread out each winter and spring to form wide, marshy valleys.

The San Francisco Bay, in the days before landfill, was much larger than it is today. Rivers and streams emptying into it often fanned out into estuaries which supported extensive tule marshes. The low, salty margins of the Bay held vast pickleweed and cordgrass swamps. Cordgrass provided what many biologists now consider to be the richest wildlife habitat in all North America.

Today only Suisun Marsh and a few other smaller areas give a hint of the extraordinary bird and animal life that the fresh- and saltwater swamps of the Bay Area once supported. Ducks were so thick than an early European hunter told how “several were frequently killed with one shot.” Channels crisscrossed the Bayshore swamps — channels so labyrinthian that the Russian explorer, Otto von Kotzebue, got lost in them and longed for a good pilot to help him thread his way through. The channels were alive with beavers and river otters in fresh water, sea otters in salt water. And everywhere there were thousands and thousands of herons, curlews, sandpipers, dowitchers, and other shore birds.

The geese that wintered in the Bay Area were “uncountable,” according to Father Juan Crespi. An English visitor claimed that their numbers “would hardly be credited by anyone who had not seen them covering whole acres of ground, or rising in myriads with a clang that may be heard a considerable distance.”

The environment of the Bay Area has changed drastically in the last 200 years. Some of the birds and animals are no longer to be found here, and many others have vastly diminished in number. Even those that have survived here (surprisingly enough) altered their habits and characters. The animals of today do not behave the same way they did two centuries ago; for when the Europeans first arrived they found, much to their amazement, that the animals of the Bay Area were relatively unafraid of people.

Foxes, which are now very secretive, were virtually underfoot. Mountain lions and bobcats were prominent and visible. Sea otters, which now spend almost their entire lives in the water, were then readily captured on land. The coyote, according to one visitor, was “so daring and dexterous, that it makes no scruple of entering human habitation in the night, and rarely fails to appropriate whatever happens to suit it.”

“Animals seem to have lost their fear and become familiar with man,” noted Captain Beechey. As one reads the old journals and diaries, one finds the same observation repeated by one visitor after another. Quail, said Beechey, were “so tame that they would often not start from a stone directed at them.” Rabbits “can sometimes be caught with the hand,” claimed a Spanish ship captain. Geese, according to another visitor, were “so impudent that they can scarcely be frightened away by firing upon them.”

Likewise, Otto von Kotzebue, an avid hunter, found that “geese, ducks, and snipes were so tame that we might have killed great numbers with our sticks.” When he and his men acquired horses from the missionaries they chased “herds of small stags, so fearless that they suffered us to ride into the midst of them.”

Von Kotzebue delighted in what he called the “superfluity of game.” But one of his hunting expeditions nearly ended in disaster. He had brought with him a crew of Aleutian Eskimos to help hunt sea otters for the fur trade. “They had never seen game in such abundance,” he wrote, “and being passionately fond of the chase they fired away without ceasing.” Then one man made the mistake of hurling a javelin at a pelican. “The rest of the flock took this so ill, that they attacked the murderer and beat him severely with their wings before other hunters could come to his assistance.”

It is obvious from these early reports that in the days of the Ohlones the animal world must have been a far more immediate presence than it is today. But this closeness was not without drawbacks. Grizzly bears, for example, who in our own time have learned to keep their distance from humans, were a serious threat to a people armed only with bows and arrows. During his short stay in California in 1792, Jose Longinos Martinez saw the bodies of two men who had been killed by bears. Father Font also noticed several Indians on both sides of the San Francisco Bay who were “badly scarred by the bites and scratches of these animals.”

Suddenly everything changed. Into this land of plenty, this land of “inexpressible fertility” as Captain la Perouse called, arrived the European and the rifle. For a few years the hunting was easy — so easy (in the words of Frederick Beechey) “as soon to lessen the desire of pursuit.” But the advantages of the gun were short-lived. Within a few generations some birds and animals had become totally exterminated, while others survived by greatly increasing the distance between themselves and people.

Today we are the heirs of that distance, and we take it entirely for granted that animals are naturally secretive and afraid of our presence. But for the Indians who lived here before us this was simply not the case. Animals and humans inhabited the very same world, and the distance between them was not very great.

The Ohlones depended upon animals for food and skins. As hunters they had an intense interest in animals and an intimate knowledge of their behavior. A large part of a man's life was spent learning the ways of animals.

But their intimate knowledge of animals did not lead to conquest, nor did their familiarity breed contempt. The Ohlones lived in a world where people were few and animals were many, where the bow and arrow were the height of technology, where a deer who was not approached in the proper manner could easily escape and a bear might conceivably attack — indeed, they lived in a world where the animal kingdom had not yet fallen under the domination of the human race and where (how difficult it is for us to fully grasp the implications of this!) people did not yet see themselves as the undisputed lords of all creation. The Ohlones, like hunting people everywhere, worshipped animal spirits as gods, imitated animal motions in their dances, sought animal powers in their dreams, and even saw themselves as belonging to clans with animals as their ancestors. The powerful, graceful animal life of the Bay Area not only filled their world, but filled their minds as well.