THE BLOG
09/24/2014 04:12 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2014

Carry a Torch

"Many Native people would say this needs to be burned." Rob Cuthrell, having just the weekend before become a newly minted doctor of archaeology, looked down from the edge of the 225-acre Quiroste Valley Cultural Preserve in Año Nuevo State Park north of Santa Cruz. We stood on the site of the ancient village Mitinne, once populated by the strong Quiroste polity who fatefully intersected here with the Spanish nearly 245 years ago. Down below was a familiar expanse of dried grasses interspersed with coyote brush and rimmed by Douglas fir trees. It looked a lot like many other wide-open expanses of California coast protected from development and home to many native species. Untouched land looks natural. But it's not, really. Nor, perhaps, has it ever been, at least on the terms that we usually define the word "natural."

Around the hilltop on which we stood, Cuthrell pointed out purple needlegrass, the official California state grass. "This is a main constituent of coastal prairies," he said. "I was up here recently harvesting seeds with young tribal members." Cuthrell told me about a native stewardship program instigated by the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, a local tribe descended from people at Mission Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista, who are involved in restoring this landscape to a condition close to what it was when the Quiroste lived here. Cuthrell is part of an extensive interdisciplinary collaboration between tribal members, academics (some of whom are also tribal members), and land management agency personnel investigating the deep history of the landscape, how the Quiroste lived on it, and how to best restore and maintain it going forward.

On the hillside, piles of hewn Douglas fir branches turned rust-colored and perfumed the air. "We've cut these down because Doug fir grows really fast, and soon these would shade out the native perennial grasses," Cuthrell said. "These piles will decompose relatively quickly." In contrast to the native grasses where we stood, the land down below was choked with invasive plants, some of which are native, but still considered invasive. The coyote brush is native, but the Quiroste would have kept it at bay, sustaining this place as wide-open grasslands by periodically burning it. "But there's too much woody shrub to burn it now," he said. "It would burn too hot. We have to prepare this land for burning, and it's going to take time." It will take more than thinning out the fuels. Invasive plants actually change the microbial structure of the soil and affect the entire suite of ecological interactions on a landscape. Putting fire on the land prematurely could perversely promote invasives rather than quell them.

This landscape was initially recognized for its historical significance by California State Parks archaeologist Mark Hylkema. Logged, ranched, and farmed for decades, the property was donated to the state parks system in the early 1980s. Hylkema had a bee in his bonnet from reading historic documents of Spanish encounters along the coast here. In 1769, Don Gaspar de Portola led an expedition in search of Monterey Bay. "By the time they got up here," Hylkema told me, "they were in dire straits. Several crew members were dying. The land was all burned, so they couldn't feed their horses and mules." Thinking Año Nuevo Point was the northernmost part of Monterey Bay, they camped at what is now called Whitehouse Creek in late October. Troops marched along the beaches and descended down into what they called a "well-sheltered valley" of rolling hills and nut bearing pines. The Spanish came upon what they called Casa Grande, a large settlement dominated by a big structure. Quiroste tribal members met them, hosted them, and restored them. "This is where prehistory becomes history," Hylkema told me. "Because the Quiroste could have told them to go back."

With students from Cabrillo College, Hylkema radiocarbon dated remains of shells, plants, and animal bones on the site to determine whether Casa Grande could have originally stood here. Hylkema looked around for researchers to help him dig deeper into the history and implications of Quiroste--and thus turned to Chuck Striplen, an Amah Mutsun tribal member then looking for a site on which to focus his dissertation in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at UC Berkeley. Eventually, a team of more than fifteen researchers, including Striplen, Hylkema, Cuthrell, Kent Lightfoot, and Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribe, cohered around the work at Quiroste. The site was classified as a cultural preserve, and recently, the Amah Mutsun Land Trust added nearly 100 acres to the site in the form of a conservation easement.

"When the idea of our Tribe participating in this study first came to us," Lopez has written, "we were dubious. . . why would we ever agree to participate in a project that could potentially disturb our ancestors?" Cuthrell proposed using magnetometry, ground penetrating radar, and electrical resistivity--none of which would disturb the ground--to help construct a three-dimensional model of what is underground. These techniques direct the researchers not only where to look further, but where to stop looking if it appears they are coming upon a grave site. The Amah Mutsun "wanted to support member Striplen's academic goals," Lopez said. They also "realized that science and archaeology play an important role in helping us restore our indigenous knowledge."

In a recent special issue of California Archeology, Kent Lightfoot, an archaeologist, and Valentin Lopez, the tribal chairman, were measured in their conclusions:

"We do not yet know when people first initiated sustained anthropogenic burning in California or how they may have developed and modified these practices over time. Nor do we know much about the kinds of impacts these landscape management practices had on the scores of biotic communities distributed across the. . . regions of California. Lastly, there has not yet been much research on the social organizational systems, numbers of people, and degree of community coordination involved in various kinds of eco-engineering activities."

But out in the field, Chuck Striplen is willing to go a little further:

"There's no escaping history. These methods were how these ecosystems were maintained for more than 10,000 years. They didn't always do it right, but on average, when the Spanish showed up it was to non-endangered condors, non-endangered red-legged frogs, and non-endangered salmon."

Looking over Quiroste, the takeaway seems clear: It is not that we are here; it is how we are here.

Note: I have a longer piece on Native Californian burning on BOOM: The Journal of California, which you can read here.