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.
In 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
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.