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A History Of Forgetting In Mendocino County

It took until March for a smattering of steelhead to run up flat-bottomed Gibson Creek, a watercourse that flows past the house where I live, in a fastidiously well-manicured section of West Side Ukiah (water-intensive dark-green lawns are perhaps these streets' definitive artifact), on a descent into the Russian River. The heavy dump of rain that month allowed the fish to make their ancient migration upstream to the place of their births, driven by the singular impulse to pass on the baton of life and then die. In returning to the place where they themselves were spawned, the steelhead bring with them doses of ecologically vital nutrients from the Pacific Ocean, carrying also the collected natural history of the Russian River in their gene pool.

It required careful inspection for my friends and I to locate the steelhead, as well as an assist from the local mailman, who seemingly prides himself as much on being an information courier regarding salmon and steelhead sightings in local waterways as he does on delivering the mail — judging from his enthusiasm. First, we spotted a few right under the bridge that crosses over our street, swiveling in a relatively deep pool we'd previously thought of mainly as a great potential swimming hole. After a few hours of looking, we eventually tracked down two more upstream.

The trouts' dark-olive back is delineated from its iridescent silver underbelly by a luminous pink stripe. I don't recall if their dorsel fins were clipped, which I remembered only afterward is the mark of their having been bred in one of the two Department of Fish and Game hatcheries on Lake Mendocino and Warm Springs dam. The hatcheries were initiated about a decade ago after the discovery that too few wild fish were returning to sustain a naturally produced migratory fish population in the Russian River.

Today, the Russian — as with its tributaries, including Gibson Creek — provides little more than a mute testimony to the thrashing, silvery surge that once roiled the watershed. As recently as the mid-20th century, the Russian was nationally-renowned for its prodigious steelhead runs, a bounty that the watershed's population of village-based native people had lived off of for more than 10,000 years, while hardly depleting it at all.

In recent weeks, I've been convening a class on the environmental and cultural history of Mendocino County called “A History of Forgetting.” Its main purpose is to examine what has been taken away from the local environment — filled in, paved over, drained, torn down, burned out, tamed, destroyed — as a guide to understanding the world we encounter here and now. It explores the interdependence between nature and culture as it's played out across time in the local terrain. It also offering some glimpses into class-based exploitation as it's existed throughout Mendo's history, including in the cases of Chinese and Latino populations and of the local First Nations people.

The course description reads, “Through a series of field trips, often involving local experts as 'tour guides,' we will deepen our knowledge of such things as: what species and cultures in our bioregion have been driven extinct? What resources did pre-conquest indigenous people rely on? What are the histories of the wastersheds we live in? Which creeks are paved over, which are dammed, which are poisoned? What ethnicities have lived in this area in various historic periods? What exact impact have industries such as logging, industrial viticulture, and marijuana had on the local landbase? Where have these impacts been most pronounced?”

As you might guess, the class has been heavy in its emphasis on Russian River watershed history so far. The trout that I witnessed spawning in Gibson Creek, in fact, provided part of the motivation for the course. I wanted to know as much as I could about the historic factors impacting the fish populations in Gibson Creek, which necessarily involves a deeper understanding of Mendocino County history and all that has impacted it.

I forbear to refer to myself as a “teacher” of the class, since my knowledge of the subject is actually severely limited, owing to the fact that I've only lived in Mendocino County for three and a half years — Ukiah for three months out of that. Fortunately, my lack of expertise is entirely accepted, if not encouraged, in this case. The class is part of a new project called Mendo Free Skool, a volunteer-run avenue for local people to exchange skills and knowledge. Anyone can be a teacher/learner/facilitator, so the classes take on the flavor of whatever people are interested in at a given time. People convene classes if they'd like to share something they know a lot about, but also in many cases when they know fairly little about something and would like to bring together a group interested in deepening the knowledge with them.

Taking Aldo Leopold's admonition that “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds” to heart, I figured it's always easier on the psyche to learn about such things as the local genocide of First Nations people and the enormous amount of destruction that has been historically wrought on the local terrain as part of a group, rather than as a solitary exercise.

During the two weeks immediately prior to the first class, I read all or most of five local history books, including The Mendocino Papers by Bruce Anderson, Killing for Land in Early California: Indian Blood at Round Valley by Frank Baumgardner (not as good as Genocide and Vendetta, which covers the same general subject, so I'm told, but still an extremely informative read), West of Eden: Communes and Utopias in Northern California (which I reviewed in these very pages recently), An Everyday History of Somewhere by Ray Raphael (which is about Southern Humboldt County, though there's much overlap), and a 1948 Columbia University history of the Pomo Indians that I picked up at Grace Hudson Museum. The books greatly supplemented my existing knowledge, which I've developed mainly through my work as a journalist for the AVA, as well as via my weekly reading of this fine publication. I encourage anyone interested in better understanding the place where we live to read them.

So far, the classes have been lively and well-attended. The first took place on April 7th, a four-hour tour of Ukiah Valley. This was the location of the northernmost settled ranchero in the Mexican state of California, Rancho Sanel, prior the United States' conquest of California in the Mexican-American War. In a sense, then, the Ukiah Valley was the southern tip of the territorial stretch along the North Coast that remained the exclusive province of First Nations people at the time the United States lumbered in to expropriate it all. I figured it was a fitting place to begin the first-ever class.

To give a small glimpse of how the classes have gone and the terrain they've covered, near the start of the first one, the group conducted an exercise where we all pictured, then described, how the place surrounding us might have looked 200 years ago. Impressively, the class's collective description nearly entirely captured early accounts of nearby Russian River valleys at the time of Europeans' arrival: Grasses higher than a person's head. Big game everywhere. The eastern hills covered with brush. Several kinds of oak, fir, pine, madrone, tan oak, chestnut oak, and manzanita. Small stands of redwood growing in a few of the stream heads. Smaller woods included hazel, chemissal, blue blossom, mountain mahogany, nutmeg, yew, and laurel.

Some white oaks had trunks six feet in diameter and were 150 feet high. Golden oaks in the canyons were four feet in diameter and also 150 feet high. Blue oaks covered much of southeastern Mendocino County.

In the second class, we mostly explored the history of inland Mendocino County's various dams and water engineering projects. On April 29 we met in Boonville for the third of six classes in total. The fourth class will explore Albion and the southern Mendocino Coast (partly inspired by the subject a described in last week's article: communalism on the North Coast). The fifth class, we'll visit the hills west of Ukiah leading toward Elk and Navarro. In the final class, we visit Round Valley.

If you are interested in when and where the rest of the classes meet, please drop me a line at

My larger interest in developing more detailed knowledge of local history is to strengthen what many environmental historians nowadays like to call “an ethic of place.” That term is, to some extent, a fancy way of referring to the experience of being rooted. As French philosopher Simone Weil once put it, “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” An inextricable part of becoming more rooted is knowing what exactly has happened to prevent us people from being more rooted in the first place; i,e., to know the history of our own places and cultures.

I felt how distant most people in this culture are from that sort of knowledge two months ago, as I stood on my own well-manicured neighborhood street, spotting the first steelhead I'd ever seen spawning in Gibson Creek. The people who designed these streets, as with those in so many others cities throughout the world, are part of a culture that worships the linear and find comfort in a geometric order that alluvial streams like Gibson Creek defy. This same sense of propriety and property is bound up with an abiding faith in technology's ability to box up the wild and separate it from our lives. We'd be better off to take a cue from the migrating steelhead, always collecting information on the history of the natural environment we're directly a part of as we go.

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