The Ongoing Story of My Bioregion [Updated 2015]

March 12, 2015 § 1 Comment

I live in the Bay-Delta bioregion, in the Lower Sacramento Watershed, in a hot Mediterranean climate. I live within what many claim as the most “productive” agricultural region of the United States. As far as I know, the native Patwin, a Wintun people, lived before me on this land. Before me lived gathering, fishing, hunting peoples. I have found little of their history.

Various accounts do chronicle Patwin resistance to Spanish incursion on their lands, how they fought against kidnappings for baptism, how they sheltered runaways, how they sometimes battled the colonizers directly. Franciscan missionaries from the closest mission to the Suisunes, Mission San Francisco de Asís, aimed to assimilate all the natives into Spanish-controlled missions, pueblos, and presidios. After over a decade of skirmishes, in 1817, commandant Jose DeArguello sent lieutenant Jose Sanchez to conquer the Suisunes, one tribe among the Patwin peoples. One colonial history document did not spare the bloodshed, depicting an instance of settlers’ violence thusly:

“Said second-lieutenant… took as prisoners eighteen pagans. They were set free because they were gravely wounded and he had no way to transport them. He believes that not one of them could have avoided death. Toward the end of the action the surviving Indians sealed themselves in three brush houses, from which they made a tenacious defence, wounding the corporals and two soldiers. Those were the only injuries sustained by the troop. No one was killed. After having killed the pagans in two of the grass houses, the Christians set fire to the third grass house, as a means to take the pagans prisoner. But they did not achieve that result, since the valiant Indians died enveloped in flames before they could be taken into custody. The second lieutenant says that he could not reason with the pagans, who died fighting or by burning.”

Another account claims the chief, chanting and singing, leapt into the flames, followed by the remaining villagers, including the women, children, and babies, in an apparent mass suicide to refuse imprisonment, assimilation, or execution.

By 1834, Chief Solano, baptized at age 10 and indoctrinated in the Spanish mission, turned the Suisunes into a valuable ally for the Spanish colonizers. He facilitated expeditions to quell other regional tribes, particularly the rebellious Wappo and Pomo, becoming a landed noble for his efforts. The history of this region hosts unfathomable betrayals, for which the Europeans named the whole county (Solano). This tale of assimilation truly breaks my heart.

Within ethnographies of the Patwin, one detailed some of their subsistence patterns, discussing the importance of the annual wetland flooding to their diet, and how rivers and creeks determined settlement patterns. Without skipping a beat it jumps to describing the period of “historic development” and “Land Reclamation and Flood Control” (reclamation?!?!), where systems of levees, dams, and canals totally altered the landbase and destroyed indigenous subsistence and settlement patterns, replacing them with colonialist farm irrigation systems. It still shocks me how easily a fake-“neutral” academic voice can gloss over genocide, or focus on celebrating the successful men and dynasties of “development”.

What of the Patwin’s neighbors? To their north, the Yuki and Nomlaki peoples have suffered. To their east, the Komkow and Nisenan peoples have suffered. To their south, the Sierra Miwok and Northern Valley Yokuts peoples have suffered. To their west, the Pomo, Coast Miwok, Wappo, and Lake Miwok peoples have suffered. A history of colonial “progress”.

Who else bears the colonial scars? Only 1% of the Central California Valley ecoregion’s original grasslands remain intact. In the past this ecoregion included a diverse tapestry of desert grasslands, prairies, (oak) savannas, riverside woodlands, marshes, seasonal vernal pools, lakes, and other habitats…now it endures as a breadbasket…in the future it may well become a dust bowl. The pronghorn antelope, Tule Elk, mule deer, and Kit Fox have not fared well.

Monocrop fields have smothered our riparian zones, marshes and wetlands, evicting our migratory songbirds, evicting the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Least Bell’s Vireo, and Warbling Vireo. We have lost 98% of our riparian zones, and most of what remains is artificial. The foothill yellow-legged frog and western spadefoot and other amphibians have suffered.

The remaining northern forests fear the saw’s metal teeth, and the great old oaks that remain, that fed many bands and villages for so long, now face Sudden Oak Death. I still gather the acorns the Suisunes gathered, but how long will that possibility persist?

The largest lake in the United States west of the Mississippi, Tulare Lake, used to reside in the San Joaquin Valley, south from the Sacramento Valley. Tulare Lake used to support a plethora of deer, elk, antelope, grizzly bear, migratory waterfowl, and many aquatic species, including chinook salmon. It now stands dry, no longer a lake at all, each day becoming more like a salt-laden husk, farmed into oblivion, paved into the urban deathscape called Southern California.

Each year Mount Shasta holds less snowpack. Each year Southern Californians vacuum up more so they can make the desert shine at night.

Dams, irrigation and pollution have mostly killed off the once-abundant chinook salmon: from 2002-2008, the Sacramento River went from 800,000 down to just 39,000. The Sacramento River bears the scars of DDT, fertilizer runoff, urban runoff, mercury, and rocket fuel.

In 1991, an unlabeled train car derailed, spilling 20,000 gallons of the metam sodium pesticide in the Sacramento River, creating a 45 mile dead zone, killing 100,000 rainbow trout, thousands of other aquatic creatures, and nearby trees. Someone has that blood on their hands, and it will not wash away.

Toxic mining waste from the Gold Rush still haunts our local Putah Creek, my nearest wild habitat, where I forage blackberries and fish televisions from the waters.

Around the land where I grew up and still live, the soils turn to poisoned dust. The air can hurt to breathe in the summer. The water tastes like pesticides and metals. The fires become more and more violent. The fauna, the flora, they fade. Few of us ask, what will we leave for the future generations? Even fewer of us realize how much we have already squandered.

Around the land where I grew up and still live, the stars become ever more difficult to see at night. People around me touch more and more plastic, less and less skin. I no longer hear the buzzing of the dragonflies and the hummingbirds of my childhood. I cannot help but taste the sterile, the tamed, the lost. I smell the stench of degrading sewers and idling exhaust pipes. We have lost our balance; how low will we fall?

I originally wrote this in 2011, and revisited it today to update. These days, everyone speaks of the crippling California drought, undoubtedly exacerbated by global climate change. Where I live, I have seen with my own eyes, the grass has begun to turn a sickening orange color from rust fungus. A phenomenon considered both rare and exclusive to the late-Summer dryness, not meant for pre-Spring. I have seen with my own eyes the water dry up from the local lagoon in Peña Adobe Regional Park. For a time, so little water remained there that nearly all the waterfowl vanished. I have seen with my own eyes highway drivers halve their speeds as the tractors in adjacent fields churn up blinding walls of dust that looked like wildfires. East of me, the 2014 King County wildfire burned 97,000 acres. Even the interstate highway caught fire at one point, until the rains came. Next time, likely no merciful rains will save us, as the drought only worsens. South of me, peoples have quite literally run out of drinking water. Farmers weep, begging conservation.

Also south of me, in the lower Central Valley, an article reported the discovery of nearly 1000 illicit oil wastewater pits. “The water forced out of the ground during oil operations is heavily saline and often contains benzene and other naturally occurring but toxic compounds….none of the pits in the county have linings that would prevent chemicals from seeping into groundwater beneath them.” These corporations don’t have a conscience, and the government protects them more often than not. They don’t give a fuck about us, not even the settlers anymore. If we do nothing, they will turn our home into a toxic wasteland.

We need not just awareness, but also transformation. We need not just sustainability, but also regeneration. Primarily we need to effectively disrupt the continuation of social practices enabling alienation and annihilation. So get to know your region and your neighbors, human and other-than-human. Find your niche and do what needs doing. Because I don’t want to ever have to explain to a child why the water hurts to drink. Fight back, by any means necessary. Eco-defense means self-defense. Life, liberty, and community can arise only following the the downfall of this disgraceful way of life. Settlers, for the love of the land, we must decolonize our way of life. We must rewild.

What does the land need from you? Who came before you? What will you leave behind?

What would you fight for, if not the air and water which give you and your loved ones life?



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