Who Was the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island?

by Sara L. Schwebel, editor of Island of the Blue Dolphins: The Complete Reader’s Edition

This guest post is published in conjunction with the airing of the documentary series West of the West: Tales from California’s Channel Islands, directed by Peter S. Seaman and Brent Sumner and produced by Sam Tyler; check here for your local listings.


When the producer, directors, and film crew pulled into the winding driveway of Stoneapple Farm in Julian, California, their first remark was, “Well, this is different.” For three years, the team had been filming West of the West, a sweeping documentary about the eight islands situated just beyond the California coastline—and the continental United States’ border. As you might expect when you’re producing a film set on the “Galapagos Islands of North America,” you have some pretty spectacular backdrops. And here they were, inland, in a tiny Gold Rush town.

It was Island of the Blue Dolphins, a children’s book, that brought them here.

The California Channel Islands are known for their spectacular vistas, pristine shorelines, and startling biodiversity. Located close to the mainland, they nonetheless feel a world apart. Intense conservation efforts help to keep it that way: five of the islands are protected as part of the Channel Islands National Park and a fifth is managed by the Nature Conservancy.

But West of the West isn’t telling a story of the islands’ flora and fauna. Instead, it is interested in the human history of the Channel Islands. And there is a lot of it. The island chain is the site of the first human habitation in North America, as many as thirteen thousand years ago.

Amidst this long history, one story has fascinated the public for centuries. It unfolds on the most remote of the islands, San Nicolas. About two hundred years ago, the Channel Islands attracted the attention of maritime fur hunters enraptured by the silky sheen of otter fur. Their drive for profit profoundly disrupted indigenous life on San Nicolas Island, and after a violent clash between hunters and Natives in 1814, the surviving Nicoleños were taken to the mainland by a Mexican ship, in 1835. But one woman was left behind.

For eighteen years.

René L. Vellanoweth at the mouth of the cave the Lone Woman is thought to have lived in, 2012. (Photograph by Steven J. Schwartz)

This Nicoleña became a news sensation, with journalists calling her a “female Crusoe” in newspapers printed across the nation and throughout the English-speaking world. Later, anthropologists would refer to her as the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island. Today, this Lone Woman is best known as Karana, the protagonist of Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins.

Karana’s story was composed in Julian, a 7.8 square-mile Census Designated Place in San Diego County. Population: 1,500. In a quirky stone cottage equipped with a wood-burning stove and shelves upon shelves of California and western history books, the struggling writer Scott O’Dell (1898-1989) thought back to his childhood days in San Pedro, when he could look across the water and spy the Channel Islands. He had undoubtedly heard the tale of the Lone Woman as a boy growing up in and around Los Angeles: everyone had. Moreover, a famous account of the Lone Woman’s life—written by journalist Emma Hardacre, for Scribner’s Monthly—was republished in 1950, just a few years before O’Dell began to put pen to paper, producing one of the bestselling children’s books of our time.

West of the West’s film crew set up cameras in Stoneapple’s Great Room to capture the story of O’Dell and his wife Dorsa retreating to Julian in a desperate attempt to overcome Scott’s writer’s block. It was a last-ditch effort that worked spectacularly well when O’Dell chose the Lone Woman and San Nicolas Island as his subjects.

As I discovered in researching and writing Island of the Blue Dolphins: The Complete Reader’s Edition, the story of Scott O’Dell’s years at Stoneapple Farm have long been lost to researchers because soon after his book was published, Scott and his wife separated. Dorsa remained in the house—which contains an assortment of Scott’s books, literary awards, manuscript drafts, and ephemera—until she died in 2008. Today, Stoneapple Farm operates as a VRBO writers’ cottage, and anyone who stays there is treated to Julian, a town where everyone has a story to tell about Scott, Dorsa, and Island of the Blue Dolphins.


Scott O’Dell was the author of numerous books for children and adults. He received the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1972.

Sara L. Schwebel is Associate Professor of English at the University of South Carolina, author of Child-Sized History: Fictions of the Past in U.S. Classrooms, and editor of the Lone Woman and Last Indians digital archive.


In Conversation: Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

UC Press is proud to have so many of our authors speaking at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this weekend, April 22-23, at the University of Southern California campus. The event is free and open to the public but do require tickets. Be sure to attend the conversations with our UC Press authors.

SATURDAY, APRIL 22

10:30am: Bill Boyarsky, author of Big Daddy, will moderate The Women Behind the Power

Big Daddy is a highly engaging biography that tells the story of an American original, California’s Big Daddy, Jesse Unruh (1922-1987), a charismatic man whose power reached far beyond the offices he held. Unruh became a larger-than-life figure and a principal architect and builder of modern California—first as an assemblyman, then as assembly speaker, and finally, as state treasurer. He was also a great character: a combination of intelligence, wit, idealism, cynicism, woman-chasing vulgarity, charm, drunken excess, and political skill. Bill Boyarsky gives a close-up look at this extraordinary political leader, a man who believed that politics was the art of the possible, and his era.

10:30am: Lawrence Weschler, author of True to Life and Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Seesis in conversation in The Artist as Muse 

In True to Life,  Weschler chronicles David Hockney’s protean production and speculations, including his scenic designs for opera, his homemade xerographic prints, his exploration of physics in relation to Chinese landscape painting, his investigations into optical devices, his taking up of watercolor—and then his spectacular return to oil painting, around 2005, with a series of landscapes of the East Yorkshire countryside of his youth. These conversations provide an astonishing record of what has been Hockney’s grand endeavor, nothing less than an exploration of “the structure of seeing” itself.

11:00am: David L. Ulin, author of Sidewalkingwill moderate Fiction: The Storytellers

In Sidewalking, Ulin offers a compelling inquiry into the evolving landscape of Los Angeles. Part personal narrative, part investigation of the city as both idea and environment, Sidewalking is many things: a discussion of Los Angeles as urban space, a history of the city’s built environment, a meditation on the author’s relationship to the city, and a rumination on the art of urban walking. Exploring Los Angeles through the soles of his feet, Ulin gets at the experience of its street life, drawing from urban theory, pop culture, and literature. For readers interested in the culture of Los Angeles, this book offers a pointed look beneath the surface in order to see, and engage with, the city on its own terms.

12:00pm: Corey Fields, author of Black Elephants in the Room, is in conversation
in The Grand Old Party 

Black Elephants in the Room considers how race structures the political behavior of African American Republicans and discusses the dynamic relationship between race and political behavior in the purported “post-racial” context of US politics. Drawing on vivid first-person accounts, the book sheds light on the different ways black identity structures African Americans’ membership in the Republican Party. Moving past rhetoric and politics, we begin to see the everyday people working to reconcile their commitment to black identity with their belief in Republican principles. And at the end, we learn the importance of understanding both the meanings African Americans attach to racial identity and the political contexts in which those meanings are developed and expressed.

12:00pm: Manuel Pastor, author of Equity, Growth, and Community, is in conversation in Walls and Lines in the Sand: The Shifting Landscapes of Immigration  

A free ebook version of this title is available through Luminos, University of California Press’s new open access publishing program for monographs.

In the last several years, much has been written about growing economic challenges, increasing income inequality, and political polarization in the United States. This book argues that lessons for addressing these national challenges are emerging from a new set of realities in America’s metropolitan regions: first, that inequity is, in fact, bad for economic growth; second, that bringing together the concerns of equity and growth requires concerted local action; and, third, that the fundamental building block for doing this is the creation of diverse and dynamic epistemic (or knowledge) communities, which help to overcome political polarization and help regions address the challenges of economic restructuring and social divides.

12:30pm: Rebecca Solnit, editor of the city atlas series: Infinite CityUnfathomable Cityand Nonstop Metropolis, will be in conversation in Nonfiction: The Future is Female

Nonstop Metropolis, the culminating volume in a trilogy of atlases, conveys innumerable unbound experiences of New York City through twenty-six imaginative maps and informative essays. Bringing together the insights of dozens of experts—from linguists to music historians, ethnographers, urbanists, and environmental journalists—amplified by cartographers, artists, and photographers, it explores all five boroughs of New York City and parts of nearby New Jersey. We are invited to travel through Manhattan’s playgrounds, from polyglot Queens to many-faceted Brooklyn, and from the resilient Bronx to the mystical kung fu hip-hop mecca of Staten Island. The contributors to this exquisitely designed and gorgeously illustrated volume celebrate New York City’s unique vitality, its incubation of the avant-garde, and its literary history, but they also critique its racial and economic inequality, environmental impact, and erasure of its past. Nonstop Metropolis allows us to excavate New York’s buried layers, to scrutinize its political heft, and to discover the unexpected in one of the most iconic cities in the world. It is both a challenge and homage to how New Yorkers think of their city, and how the world sees this capital of capitalism, culture, immigration, and more.

1:30pm: David Kipen, of California in the 1930s, Los Angeles in the 1930s, San Francisco in the 1930s, and San Diego in the 1930sin conversation in Writing California and Beyond 

Los Angeles in the 1930s returns to print an invaluable document of Depression-era Los Angeles, illuminating a pivotal moment in L.A.’s history, when writers like Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West, and F. Scott Fitzgerald were creating the images and associations—and the mystique—for which the City of Angels is still known. Many books in one, Los Angeles in the 1930s is both a genial guide and an addictively readable history, revisiting the Spanish colonial period, the Mexican period, the brief California Republic, and finally American sovereignty. It is also a compact coffee table book of dazzling monochrome photography. These whose haunting visions suggest the city we know today and illuminate the booms and busts that marked L.A.’s past and continue to shape its future.

2:00pm: Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of The Managed Heart and So How’s the Family, in conversation in President Trump

In So How’s the Family, a new collection of thirteen essays, Hochschild—focuses squarely on the impact of social forces on the emotional side of intimate life. From the “work” it takes to keep personal life personal, put feeling into work, and empathize with others; to the cultural “blur” between market and home; the effect of a social class gap on family wellbeing; and the movement of care workers around the globe, Hochschild raises deep questions about the modern age. In an eponymous essay, she even points towards a possible future in which a person asking “How’s the family?” hears the proud answer, “Couldn’t be better.”

SUNDAY, APRIL 23

10:30am: William Deverell, author of Water and Los Angeles with Nayan Shah, author of Stranger Intimacy and Josh Kun, editor of the forthcoming The Tide Was Always High in conversation in California Dreams: A Tribute to Kevin Starr  

William Deverell

Water and Los Angeles: A free ebook version of this title is available through Luminos, University of California Press’s Open Access publishing program for monographs.

Los Angeles rose to significance in the first half of the twentieth century by way of its complex relationship to three rivers: the Los Angeles, the Owens, and the Colorado. The remarkable urban and suburban trajectory of southern California since then cannot be fully understood without reference to the ways in which each of these three river systems came to be connected to the future of the metropolitan region. This history of growth must be understood in full consideration of all three rivers and the challenges and opportunities they presented to those who would come to make Los Angeles a global power. Full of primary sources and original documents, Water and Los Angeles will be of interest to both students of Los Angeles and general readers interested in the origins of the city.

Nayan Shah

Stranger Intimacy: In exploring an array of intimacies between global migrants Nayan Shah illuminates a stunning, transient world of heterogeneous social relations—dignified, collaborative, and illicit. At the same time he demonstrates how the United States and Canada, in collusion with each other, actively sought to exclude and dispossess nonwhite races. Stranger Intimacy reveals the intersections between capitalism, the state’s treatment of immigrants, sexual citizenship, and racism in the first half of the twentieth century.

 

Josh Kun

Black and Brown in Los AngelesThe first book to focus exclusively on the range of relationships and interactions between Latinas/os and African Americans in one of the most diverse cities in the United States, the book delivers supporting evidence that Los Angeles is a key place to study racial politics while also providing the basis for broader discussions of multiethnic America. Readers will gain an understanding of the different forms of cultural borrowing and exchange that have shaped a terrain through which African Americans and Latinas/os cross paths, intersect, move in parallel tracks, and engage with a whole range of aspects of urban living. Tensions and shared intimacies are recurrent themes that emerge as the contributors seek to integrate artistic and cultural constructs with politics and economics in their goal of extending simple paradigms of conflict, cooperation, or coalition. The book features essays by historians, economists, and cultural and ethnic studies scholars, alongside contributions by photographers and journalists working in Los Angeles.

10:30am: Jon Lewis, author of Hard-Boiled Hollywood and Kenneth Turan, author of Sundance to Sarajevo in conversation in Nonfiction: Hooray for Classic Hollywood 

Jon Lewis

Hard-Boiled Hollywood: The tragic and mysterious circumstances surrounding the deaths of Elizabeth Short, or the Black Dahlia, and Marilyn Monroe ripped open Hollywood’s glitzy façade, exposing the city’s ugly underbelly of corruption, crime, and murder. These two spectacular dead bodies, one found dumped and posed in a vacant lot in January 1947, the other found dead in her home in August 1962, bookend this new history of Hollywood. Short and Monroe are just two of the many left for dead after the collapse of the studio system, Hollywood’s awkward adolescence when the company town’s many competing subcultures—celebrities, moguls, mobsters, gossip mongers, industry wannabes, and desperate transients—came into frequent contact and conflict. Hard-Boiled Hollywood focuses on the lives lost at the crossroads between a dreamed-of Los Angeles and the real thing after the Second World War, where reality was anything but glamorous.”

Kenneth Turan

Sundance to Sarajevo is a tour of the world’s film festivals by an insider whose familiarity with the personalities, places, and culture surrounding the cinema makes him uniquely suited to his role. Kenneth Turan, film critic for the Los Angeles Times, writes about the most unusual as well as the most important film festivals, and the cities in which they occur, with an eye toward the larger picture. His lively narrative emphasizes the cultural, political, and sociological aspects of each event as well as the human stories that influence the various and telling ways the film world and the real world intersect.

12:00pm: Gabriel Thompson, author of America’s Social Arsonistin conversation in Lost Stories of the West
Raised by conservative parents who hoped he would “stay with his own kind,” Fred Ross instead became one of the most influential community organizers in American history. His activism began alongside Dust Bowl migrants, where he managed the same labor camp that inspired John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. During World War II, Ross worked for the release of interned Japanese Americans, and after the war, he dedicated his life to building the political power of Latinos across California. Labor organizing in this country was forever changed when Ross knocked on the door of a young Cesar Chavez and encouraged him to become an organizer. Until now there has been no biography of Fred Ross, a man who believed a good organizer was supposed to fade into the crowd as others stepped forward. In America’s Social Arsonist, Gabriel Thompson provides a full picture of this complicated and driven man, recovering a forgotten chapter of American history and providing vital lessons for organizers today.

3:00pm: William Deverell, author of Water and Los Angeles and Eden by Designin conversation in Nonfiction: Tragedies of Our Past

In 1930 the Olmsted Brothers and Harland Bartholomew & Associates submitted a report, “Parks, Playgrounds, and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region,” to the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. After a day or two of coverage in the newspapers, the report dropped from sight. The plan set out a system of parks and parkways, children’s playgrounds, and public beaches. It is a model of ambitious, intelligent, sensitive planning commissioned at a time when land was available, if only the city planners had had the fortitude and vision to act on its recommendations.

“Parks, Playgrounds, and Beaches” has become a highly valued but difficult-to-find document. In this book, Greg Hise and William Deverell examine the reasons it was called for, analyze why it failed, and open a discussion about the future of urban public space. 

3:30pm: Mugambi Jouet, author of Exceptional America, in conversation in What’s Up with America 

Why did Donald Trump follow Barack Obama into the White House? Why is America so polarized? And how does American exceptionalism explain these social changes?

Jouet describes why Americans are far more divided than other Westerners over basic issues, including wealth inequality, health care, climate change, evolution, gender roles, abortion, gay rights, sex, gun control, mass incarceration, the death penalty, torture, human rights, and war. Raised in Paris by a French mother and Kenyan father, Jouet then lived in the Bible Belt, Manhattan, and beyond. Drawing inspiration from Alexis de Tocqueville, he wields his multicultural sensibility to parse how the intense polarization of U.S. conservatives and liberals has become a key dimension of American exceptionalism—an idea widely misunderstood as American superiority. While exceptionalism once was a source of strength, it may now spell decline, as unique features of U.S. history, politics, law, culture, religion, and race relations foster grave conflicts. They also shed light on the intriguing ideological evolution of American conservatism, which long predated Trumpism. Exceptional America dissects the American soul, in all of its peculiar, clashing, and striking manifestations.

3:30pm: David L. Ulin, author of Sidewalking and Josh Kun, author of Black and Brown in Los Angeles in conversation in Nonfiction: The Culture of Southern California 

David Ulin

Sidewalking: “In this brief but engaging book, Ulin chronicles his wanderings through the streets and his conversations with friends, entrepreneurs, and officials, and he makes it clear that he has read every book and seen every movie on his subject. Those who know the city will have the advantage, but Ulin casts his net widely, so most readers will enjoy his observations of Los Angeles in literary and popular art as well as his thoughtful personal views.”—Kirkus

 

Josh Kun

Black and Brown in Los Angeles“Exceeds [its] categories and adds to an emerging corpus of comparative knowledge . . . the book shows what interdisciplinary scholarship can do for America’s understanding of itself, especially when it comes to culturally promiscuous, ethnically heterogeneous megapolises like LA.”—Ryan Boyd The Los Angeles Review

 

 


Earth Day and the Anthropocene

This post concludes our Earth Week blog series. Thank you for reading!

by Jason M. Kelly, editor of Rivers of the Anthropocene

On November 4, 2016, the Paris Climate Agreement went into effect. Signed and ratified by the vast majority of members of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the agreement wasn’t perfect. But, it was an important step forward in mitigating the worst effects of climate change. Four days later, the United States elected a president who had previously claimed that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.

In the months that have followed, the new president and his administration have begun implementing a wholesale attack on climate science and environmental regulations. The new administration’s policies point to the close connections between society — politics, culture, and economy — and environmental systems. Rejecting scientific warnings, it has doubled down on its support of fossil fuel consumption and economic opportunism at the expense of the environment. Its justifications and appeals to the public — economic necessity, individual freedom, and nationalism — are framed through ideologies that have historical roots going back centuries. The actions that their policies enable will have environmental consequences that last far beyond the lifetimes of those currently serving in office.

The interrelations between society, culture, economy, politics, and environments have deep histories. In fact, to imagine sociocultural and geobiophysical systems as distinct entities would be a mistake; they are entangled. Historically, environmental contexts have played key roles in shaping sociocultural systems. And, humans have had greater or lesser impacts on their regional ecologies over tens of thousands of years through clear cutting, slash-and-burn agriculture, hunting and fishing, and flood control and irrigation systems.

Over the past several hundred years, the relationship between humans and their environments has intensified as human populations have grown. Consumption of resources, magnified by the energy unleashed by burning fossil fuels, has resulted in fundamental transformations of earth systems (e.g. carbon cycle, water cycle, nitrogen cycle). And, political contingencies, cultural beliefs, and economic desires have reinforced behaviors that continue to destabilize the planet’s systems.

Because humans have become such a powerful environmental force, a growing number of scientists have suggested that we have entered a new geological epoch — the Anthropocene. Humanity’s impact on the planet can be measured in sediments and ice cores. Its actions have entered the geological record.

Understanding the Anthropocene requires more than just researching the environmental effects of human actions however. As important is understanding the role that human systems play in shaping behaviors — for example, the ways that capitalism and imperialism have encouraged certain practices of resource extraction and modes of thinking. Doing so allows us to address more than just the consequences of human action. It helps us understand the root causes as well.

At its core then, research on the Anthropocene is focused on exploring the historical entanglements between sociocultural and geobiophysical systems. This necessitates multidisciplinarity — of scientists, social scientists, humanists, artists, policy makers, and community organizers working together to tackle environmental challenges in all of their complexities. This work includes descriptive and analytical approaches, but also public engagement meant to influence policy and public attitudes. In the current political context, this type of work is one important tool in mitigating the worst effects of climate change denial and attacks on environmental protections.


Jason M. Kelly is Director of the IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute and Associate Professor of History at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.


A Right-Now Battle for the Future of America’s Public Lands

This post is part of our Earth Week blog series. Check back every day between now and Friday for new blog posts. 

by Stephen Nash, author of Grand Canyon for Sale: Public Lands versus Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change

America’s national park system is the most familiar component of our vast estate of federal public lands: forests and grasslands, wildlife refuges, millions of acres of rangelands. These landscapes all add up to more than a fourth of the U.S. national dirt. Earth Week 2017 finds the survival of their natural systems increasingly vulnerable, politically and biologically.

The plan long promoted by conservation biologists and environmentalists, and seriously contemplated by the federal government in the recent past, was to move toward connecting these lands to help ensure their protection from industrial exploitation and development pressures, and to enable species to adapt and migrate in the face of quickly arriving climate change.

But a powerful, well-funded political movement is pushing in the other direction: to atomize federal public lands, hand them over to the states, and privatize them. My book Grand Canyon for Sale: Public Lands versus Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change details this conflict, its origins, and its political and ideological supporters, from ranchers to billionaires. The Trump administration has been both equivocal and non-vocal on this issue so far — hard to prophesy how this map will look on Earth Week 2018, and beyond.

With Grand Canyon National Park as the foreground example, we can also see the biological threats to the future of public lands: recurring waves of imported invasive species that disrupt ecosystems, a lengthening list of endangered species whose populations steadily diminish and, especially, climate change. These factors are already transforming public lands, including Grand Canyon.

Fortunately, natural scientists and their allies spend whole careers on research and field work to mitigate these losses and plan for a radically different climatic future. Their work, too, is embattled. Many of them will celebrate Earth Day around the U.S. this weekend by taking part in a March for Science. For public lands and for science both, we’ll see what direction the coming year takes…


Stephen Nash is the author of award-winning books on science and the environment, and his reporting has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, BioScience, Archaeology, and The New Republic. He is Visiting Senior Research Scholar at the University of Richmond


Jennifer L. Roberts Awarded the 29th Annual Eldredge Prize by the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Congratulations to Jennifer L. Roberts on winning the Smithsonian American Art Museum‘s 29th Annual Charles C. Eldredge Prize for Distinguished Scholarship for her book, Transporting Visions: The Movement of Images in Early America.

The jurors wrote in a joint statement:

“Roberts’s adventurous account provides an exciting indication of where the field of American art is going as it pushes analysis of visual material into new terrain.”

UC Press is incredibly proud of this recognition in particular, and the continued acknowledgement of our American Art History publishing program by the Eldredge Prize: we have now won this distinguished award a total of nine times.


Jennifer L. Roberts is Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. She teaches American art from the colonial period to the present, with particular focus on issues of landscape, expedition, material culture theory, and the history of science, and is the author of Mirror-Travels: Robert Smithson and History and Jasper Johns/In Press: The SI-207-2017 2 Crosshatch Works and the Logic of Print.

 

 


Big Sur and California’s Beloved Coastline

This post is part of our Earth Week blog series. Check back every day between now and Friday for new blog posts. 

by Shelley Alden Brooks, author of Big Sur: The Making of a Prized California Landscape

California’s world-famous coastline is integral to the state’s economy, to residents’ sense of well-being, and to the California Dream, but only since the 1970s has a groundswell of support emerged to protect this prized resource from spoliation. Alarm over rapid change along the coast, including its deterioration from residential and commercial development, disappearing wetlands, new marinas, and the proposed freeways and nuclear plants, catalyzed the people who had come to know the coast as the geographic “soul” of California. In 1976, the state legislature passed the Coastal Act to make permanent the California Coastal Commission, an agency created out of a ballot initiative passed four years earlier. The Coastal Commission’s efforts to guide sustainable coastal land use and increase coastal access have prompted support and appreciation from many Californians, as well as emulation from coastal governments around the country and the world. But there has also been pushback and resistance from the California industries, government officials, and private citizens who believe the Coastal Act gave the state agency too much power to regulate private property.

My book explores how locals in Big Sur (an exceptionally beautiful 75-mile stretch of California’s central coast) have worked alongside county and state officials to seek a balance between the priorities of preservation and property rights. Built into the parameters of Big Sur’s well-preserved scenery is an unusual conviction that preservation and habitation can be mutually supportive endeavors. In part this has been achieved because Monterey County and Big Sur residents began in the mid twentieth century to pioneer open-space planning, conservation easements, intergovernmental collaboration and citizen activism, and transfer development credits to accommodate the needs of Big Sur’s natural and human communities. But Big Sur’s unique status also derives from the mystique created by iconic writers such as Robinson Jeffers and Henry Miller who used their talents to showcase this unusual meeting of beauty and culture. Today, the name ‘Big Sur’ conjures up images of a place uniquely Californian, carved out of the geologic and cultural forces of which the state has a disproportionate share. While Big Sur’s well-preserved vistas and minimal development embody the Coastal Act’s mission, its high-end real estate and vacation homes reflect the steep social costs associated with preservation.

Big Sur, like any landscape, is not static; shifting economic realities and perceptions of nature’s worth can alter the place. Ansel Adams acknowledged this in 1980 when he unsuccessfully campaigned for a federal seashore. However, if the integrity of Big Sur’s Coastal Commission-approved land use plan is maintained, including the protection of Highway 1 as a two-lane road, minimal change will come to the built environment. But it is not so much the physical boundaries (though these are formidable) that prevent overdevelopment in Big Sur, as the social boundaries erected to preserve something unique along the California coast. Considerable momentum backs the commitment to Big Sur’s wild and storied land, and the status of both of these elements will continue to reveal a good deal about Californians’ relationship to their beloved coast.


Shelley Alden Brooks teaches Twentieth-Century U.S., California, and Environmental History at the University of California, Davis. She also works for the California History-Social Science Project and serves on the statewide Environmental Literacy Steering Committee.


The Problem within Environmentalism

This post is part of our Earth Week blog series. Check back every day between now and Friday for new blog posts. 

by Laura Watt, author of The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore

Earth Day is often celebrated with an iconic image of Earth as seen from space; against the black void, our curved home swimming with blue oceans and swirling with weather systems looks fragile and delicate. The message is unquestionably, don’t mess it up!

Inspirational as it is, this sort of image contributes to core problem within environmentalism—it perpetuates the notion that humans are somehow outside of nature, separate and distinct. It positions the natural world as observed from afar, at a great distance—a piece of gleaming treasure to be nestled in a velvet-lined box for safe keeping.

In contrast, my recent book The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore argues that we must consider natural and cultural elements of protected areas as essential components of whole landscapes, rather than as separate concerns diametrically opposed. Point Reyes is often heralded for its wild coastline, its plentiful bird and marine life, its winding trails through dappled forests and rolling grasslands. Yet much of what is perceived as wild nature is the product of centuries of human use and management. Like elsewhere across the Americas, Point Reyes was inhabited for centuries by native peoples, in this case several bands of coastal Miwok. Recent studies suggest extensive burning and other forms of indigenous vegetation management occurred over thousands of years. Since Mexican rancheros settled this part of California in the 1830s, the peninsula has been used extensively for raising cattle—drawn to the lush grasslands created and maintained by Miwok land management practices. Nearly two centuries of ranching has profoundly impacted the landscape, and kept the land open and relatively undeveloped, making it an attractive location for a national park unit. This natural landscape is full of the work of human hands.

And perhaps even more surprising, even our most urban landscapes are full of thriving nature. For example, Peter Alagona’s book After The Grizzly points out that a stable and growing population of the adorable, and formally endangered, San Joaquin Valley kit fox, for example, can be found in urban Bakersfield, even while the species is struggling in other, more “wild” parts of its range. Yet these city dwellers are invisible to most conservation efforts, except as a source of additional genetic diversity for their cousins living in nature reserves. Similar work documenting the habits of urban wildlife—a colleague recently explained how automatic cameras at Chicago intersections, intended to catch red-light runners, have revealed urban coyotes waiting for the light to change, having learned that it is easier to cross on the green—is forcing us to rethink our categories of natural and cultural as more organisms adapt themselves to “our” world.

John Muir famously described his beloved Sierra wildernesses as distant cathedrals where visitors should experience awe and wonder, which became the guiding vision for U.S. national parks. But have we listened solely to Muir for too long? Another voice deserving more attention is that of Aldo Leopold, whose pioneering advocacy for wilderness also wrote stressed the importance of re-establishing a personal and collaborative relationship with the natural world through working the land. For Leopold, admiring from afar or as an occasional visitor is not enough; we need to recognize our reliance on and co-existence with nature through living and working with it: “Conservation means harmony between men and land.” Point Reyes has long been ideally suited to be managed as a Leopoldian park, a place where the wild and the pastoral are not in competition but are complementary, thriving side by side. It provides an important reminder for Earth Day, that we are all in it together.


Laura Alice Watt is Professor of Environmental History and Policy at Sonoma State University.


An Imperialist History of Middle Eastern Borders

by Laura Robson, author of States of Separation: Transfer, Partition, and the Making of the Modern Middle East

For years now, pundits and politicians alike have been tossing around the idea of drawing new borders in the Middle East as a “solution” to conflict there—first in Iraq following its descent into sectarian violence after the American invasion in 2003, and then in Syria following its own spiral into civil war in 2011. This much-repeated idea was trotted out yet again just this month, when Thomas Friedman of the New York Times wrote a column advocating the partition of Syria and the construction of some kind of semi-autonomous Sunni area—protected by an international military presence—as the “least bad solution” for an impossibly difficult problem.

Such proposals for externally enforced ethnic or sectarian partition in the Middle East—presumably involving at least some element of population transfer, given the demographic realities of Syrian population centers—have a long history, and an impeccable imperialist genealogy.

When British and French colonial administrations took over, respectively, Palestine and Iraq and Syria and Lebanon in the early 1920s, they did so in the context of furious challenges to nineteenth-century European imperialism from all directions. Nationalists from India to Ireland to Egypt marched in the streets against colonial rule; on the diplomatic stage, both Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Lenin, from their radically disparate political platforms, denounced old-style imperial adventuring (although, of course, neither the American nor the Bolshevik state was interested in relinquishing its own extraterritorial claims).

In the Middle East, the idea of restructuring states around nationality, ethnicity, and sect emerged as a useful way to recast British and French imperial occupation as a kind of internationalist modernization. To that end, the British and French colonial authorities emphasized to both their new subjects and an international public that they were merely “mandatory” authorities, working under the supervision of the new League of Nations to create functional modern nation-states out of the old Ottoman Arab provinces. In conjunction with the League, they came up with a variety of plans for demographic engineering —communally conscious borders, forcible and coerced refugee resettlement, mass population transfers, and support for a European Jewish settler community in Palestine—that were designed to simultaneously offer a rationale for the British and French colonial presence and help control people and territory on the ground.

Ethnic engineering of this kind was useful at the levels of both international diplomacy and practical imperial governance. Even the resistance such plans engendered was valuable to colonial authorities; it served to reinforce the local and international case that external forces were necessary to keep order in such volatile regions, thus extending the life of these colonial occupations and defending the high levels of violence required to maintain them.

The contemporary resurrection of this concept serves the same purposes. It offers a rationale for a long-term American and European military presence in the Middle East under the guise of “protecting”—that is, creating and enforcing—ethnically and communally homogenous nation-states. The appeal of this idea lies in the way it turns failure to success: the more chaos and bloodshed results from such policies, the stronger the case becomes for an ongoing—perhaps permanent—administrative and military presence, internationalist in name but acting primarily in the economic, political, and strategic interests of the occupying powers.


Laura Robson is Associate Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at Portland State University. She is the author of Colonialism and Christianity in Mandate Palestine and editor of Minorities and the Modern Arab World: New Perspectives.


The Mountains That Remade America

This is the first post in our Earth Week blog series. Check back every day between now and Friday for new blog posts. 

by Craig Jones, author of The Mountains That Remade America: How Sierra Nevada Geology Impacts Modern Life

Earth Day falls the day after John Muir’s birthday, an apropos juxtaposition as Muir’s influence can be found in the concept of lobbying on behalf of the earth. Although Emerson and Thoreau promoted nature, theirs was an eastern nature that was recovering from settlement; Muir’s untamed western nature led him to a far more active role.

When John Muir began wandering the Sierra Nevada in 1868, its western foothills were already savaged by the Gold Rush. Forests were being felled for timber to support the deep mines in the Mother Lode and Comstock. Yet, almost peculiarly, the High Sierra where Muir wandered was free of settlements, and mines, and loggers. It was also relatively empty of Native Americans, largely because of disease, warfare, dislocation and starvation, but also because the high part of the range was never more than a seasonal refuge for the tribes that otherwise lived on the range’s flanks. The absence of miners and Indians was because of the granite backbone of the range, too high to settle and barren of minerals. It was the absence of nearly all things human, quite distinct from eastern lands, that led Muir to state “that wildness is a necessity” and note “in God’s wildness lies the hope of the world – the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.” Muir had removed people from wilderness.

Muir’s literary excision of native peoples from these wild lands they had used elevated unsettled land to a higher plane. While Easterners hiked through second growth forest between towns, Muir demanded landscapes wholly untouched by civilization. In observing the growth of timbering and sheepherding, he saw his touchstone lands at risk. This led him to political activism instead of mere literary adventurism; he began to write advocacy pieces for Eastern magazines; he would lobby politicians to create new parks. In his struggles to protect lands around Yosemite Valley, Muir recognized that a broader organization was needed. And so he helped to found the Sierra Club.

Muir’s Sierra Club had a unique aspect to its mission, stating in the original Agreement of Association in 1892 to “enlist the support and co-operation of the people and the government in preserving the forests and other features of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.” This was no mere hiking club, though that was part of the club’s persona; this was a genuine lobbying organization from its start in 1892.

In the year prior to the first Earth Day, the club went to court on behalf of a mountain valley named Mineral King in the Sierra that would lead, about a year after the first Earth Day, to a cherished opinion made by Justice William O. Douglas: “Contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation. This suit would therefore be more properly labeled as Mineral King v. Morton.” Muir’s club had helped make it possible for the earth itself to be a plantiff in U.S. courts.


Craig H. Jones is Professor of Geological Sciences and Fellow with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has published peer-reviewed research in ScienceNature, and in prominent earth-science journals. He is also the coauthor of Introduction to Applied Geophysics, and he blogs as the Grumpy Geophysicist.


Wake Up and Smell the Money

by Vicki Mayer, author of Almost Hollywood, Nearly New Orleans: The Lure of the Local Film Economy

Probably no one in media studies loves tax policy. Or economic multiplier equations. Or state budget battles. I know that was not my own hook into becoming a doctor of all things fun and entertaining. And yet these things matter more than ever.

For media fans, tax breaks and other incentives are the tinder for what ignites Hollywood media production, and what sets many corporations, developers, economic policy wonks, and speculators on fire. Dedicated public money for a multi-million-dollar film shoot means less risk for studios and Wall Street investors who raise the financing. Public coffers for media infrastructure flip property values and attract schemers to house and entertain the industry’s mobile workforces. In the most ‘successful’ sites outside of Southern California, Hollywood production stokes the hopes for permanent jobs and stable redevelopment; all the while fueling a shadow economy of tradable tax credits and venture capital bubbles.

For myself, though, the language of multipliers became material, more visceral, when I couldn’t park within a block of my own doorstep because there was film crew who had rented my street for a week. I had an infant and groceries. It was summer hot. Everyone and everything was melting while I passed the trailers and catering. Nothing pisses a new mom off like parking. At least, that moment made me think: Who can own the street? How and how much does it cost?

It didn’t take long digging around production spaces that I realized that ‘no parking’ is the burden of only those privileged enough to own space, or even a car for that matter, in a place media producers find desirable and city governments find bankable. This opaque economy of public money for private incentivizing meant borrowing the budgets dedicated to education, health, and social services. Film students, for example, unknowingly traded in increased fees and debts in exchange for the promise they might work their way up a narrow and precarious ladder to full-time work. Unemployed creative workers have found themselves caught between precious few well-paid gigs, explosive rental prices, and the tatters of a safety net for check-ups. After 15 years of seeding Hollywood South, Louisiana is still one of the poorest and most unequal states in the U.S.

So next time we praise the series made in Atlanta, or Austin, or Albuquerque, it might be time for media studies to pay attention to who really got paid for that production, and if they get their money’s worth.


Vicki Mayer is Professor of Communication at Tulane University. She is coeditor of the journal Television & New Media and author or editor of several books and journal articles about media production, creative industries, and cultural work.

A free ebook version of Vicki’s new book, Almost Hollywood, Nearly New Orleans, is available through Luminos, University of California Press’s Open Access publishing program. Download a copy now.

You can also follow her on Academia.edu.