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Wilder Times

San Francisco's Nob Hill
How do we remember a forgotten wilderness? Here, Laura Cunningham's representation of San Francisco's Nob Hill centuries ago: a grassy, windswept hill with blooming ceanothus bushes and a shed elk antler. 

It’s often difficult to perceive what’s missing. While our senses fill our minds with information about what’s surrounding us, it takes a more deliberate effort to notice what isn’t. Or wonder what might have been.

Laura Cunningham's Land of No FencesIn the July-August issue of Orion, Derrick Jensen writes of an evening replete with backyard visits from foxes, a black bear, and raccoon (article not available online). He is delighted—until he recalls reading that grizzlies used to frequent the area in such numbers that a person could expect to see one every 15 minutes.

Loss of biodiversity is happening at an observable rate, contends Jensen. Not just with high-profile species: African lion, giant tortoise, flying frogs, eagles. Many of the wild animals we’re used to seeing everyday are declining in number as well: birds, spiders, bats. We won’t stop this phenomenon, Jensen reasons, until we insist on noticing that it’s happening.

A person could find exceptions to his theory. Public pressure to protect bees, endangered species, and wilderness regions does indicate that some losses, at least, are noted. Still, it’s worth considering what we’ve already forgotten.

Artist and naturalist Laura Cunningham offers an example of such investigation. Her work, featured in Earth Island Journal (Winter 2013), provides a glimpse into the past with thoroughly-researched paintings of Californian landscapes as they once were. In her book, A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California, Cunningham pairs her paintings with present-day photos of the same landscape, contrasting present with past in a way that makes forgetting impossible.

But we don’t have to be artists to document the changes around us. “Here’s what I want you to do,” writes Jensen, “I want you to go outside. […] I want you to picture the land as it was before the land was built over. I want you to research who lived there. I want you to feel how it was then, feel how it wants to be. I want you to begin keeping a calendar of who you see and when: the first day each year […] frogs start singing, the last day you see robins in the fall.”

The information we gather will likely be an unsettling, but necessary, reminder of the wild that’s been lost both outside and within us.

Images courtesy of Laura Cunningham. Top: San Francisco's Nob Hill. Above, left: a grizzly in an oak-grassland of the South Coast Range east of what is now San Jose, California.