Saved by the Ancient Garden

GG has been working on a book on the history and impact of the Sierra Nevada and its relationship to the geology of the range. (This blog exists in part to exercise GG’s weak writing muscles to help in that endeavor). The book is pretty far along and so of course some things have fallen to the side, distractions insufficiently connected to merit inclusion in the final text.  But some stories deserve not to die an unknown death….

In 1988, GG managed to enlist the help of Steve Rocker from RPI, Tom Fairbanks from Oregon State [well, maybe U of O-its been a while] and then-grad student Scott Phelps from Caltech to deploy six seismometers in the backcountry of Sequoia National Park and adjacent parts of the National Forest. Our effort had met with several setbacks, so it was towards the middle of the third week when Scott and I toiled up the 4000′ climb from Kern Hot Springs over the top of the Chagoopa Plateau area and on to the old CCC cabin in the Big Arroyo, where we expected to find that the packer had dropped one of our seismometers. Steve and Tom were to follow the next day. When Scott and I got to the cabin, no seismometer.

So the next day, when we were supposed to be getting things set up so that Steve and Tom could help finish the job late in the day, we instead were hiking down into the Big Arroyo to get our missing gear. We succeeded but could only bring up about 2/3 of it. We would need an extra day.  Meantime, Scott was heading out of the backcountry.

That next day would take Steve and I down the canyon to get the rest of the gear while Tom started preparations for installing the seismometer.  But we had almost no food left–I had part of a package of freeze-dried spaghetti and a freeze-dried meat patty; Tom and Steve had even less.  While Steve and I schlepped up the missing gear, Tom also did a little foraging and came up with some onions and sage.  [This is NOT an approved activity in a national park.  We were kind of desperate]. While I polished off what little was left of the spaghetti, Tom and Steve had a sort of stew made from the meat patty, onions and sage. It was enough for the three of us to get back to our food stocks the next day.

Just where did the onions come from? That seemed quite fortunate.

Overlooked for a long time has been the horticultural efforts of the native peoples of the Sierra.  Their activities had been noted, leading to the derisive term “Digger Indians”, but whites who witnessed this activity didn’t fully appreciate that this was more than simply digging up roots; the Native Americans in these parts were managing the landscape far more thoroughly than Euro-Americans recognized, encouraging and cultivating many food and medicinal plants while using fire to keep other plants at bay.  Work in the past 30 years or so has greatly clarified the role Native peoples played in creating the tapestry of plants found in the Sierran foothills.

These same peoples would spend their summers in the high country.  At these subalpine heights, even modern researchers tend to think their impacts on the ecology were subdued, some amount of burning at meadow edges being the most likely activity. But wouldn’t they also try to do some planting or encouraging of foodstuffs just as in the foothills?  It seemed likely to GG, so the original text suggested that those onions might have been the feral remains of an old Indian garden.

Well, an editor challenged GG on this, and this is not of course GG’s speciality, and the literature is rather vague at these elevations.  The editor knew one of the experts on Native impacts on Sierran ecosystems and so asked: “How much evidence is there for a discernible impact on the vegetation and flora [in subalpine and alpine zones]? Was the high Sierra landscape anywhere near as cultural and anthropogenic as landscapes much lower in elevation where Indians had permanent villages?” The answer came back: “There was Indian burning in high elevation forests to manage for a tighter snowpack and also high elevation meadows to keep them open for willows and sedges (basketry), food, and other resources… I know the Washoe would gather wild onions under the aspens at very high elevations–leaving the bulbs behind to make more and just cutting back the greens.” With no prompting about onions, GG’s speculation suddenly became more secure.

Now the Washoe were far to the north, but hey, maybe our onions really were the leftovers from an ancient Tubatulabal garden. The area we were in in the Big Arroyo seems a likely place for a summer campsite, though GG has not seem archeological discussion of that particular spot.  It is similar to other places in the parks that have archeological evidence of occupation. Although GG felt justified in this rather exorbitant claim, the text was, as the editor noted, distracting from an already complex line of thought, so the little story of the seismologists saved by the old Indian garden fell out of the book. But it seemed a shame to lose a fable that might even be true, so here it is.


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