Fifteen Events That Have Shaped California’s Human Landscape

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Ca l ifornia is a state with extraordinary topographic and ecologica l diversity. At first glance its landscape is dominated by mountains and broad, flat valleys. deserts. bays, and steep coastal cliffs. It is a powerful canvas upon whim the actions and alterations of humanity are painted. Yet it is the accumulation of those humiln activities that shapes the vi5tl11l and experi entia l landscape encou ntered by peopl e whose connection to the natural world grows less t(mgible with each techno­ logica l innova tion. Understand i ng the evol uti on an d expression of California’s human landscape is critica l to understanding society and culture in this remarkable corner of the earth.

From at least 15,000 years ago. humans have cumulatively acted upon. managed, and accidentally or deliber,1tcly altered the natural world in California. Nearly every aspect-landforms. soils. vegetation, fauna, and hydrology-has been mod ifi ed. Earn addit i on. subtraction, or rclocdtion altered a landscape b(1se already humanized by previous people. I Iu­ man h istory in California may be likened toil river that consists of the water of many thousands of tributaries. Each new addition alters the width, color. turl>ulencc, and direction of flow of the river. But earn tributary adds to a set of riparian conditions ,1lrcady well established. Some tributaries are insignificant while others rildically alter the look and bt’llilvior of the connut•nt river as surdy (IS the Missouri ,)Iterthe M ississippi. We have tried to iden tify tht• foOccn most i mport(ml tribu­ taries in the river t hai is California’s visual landSCdpe. The event that

marks earn confluence has mingled with and adapted to the existing flow while fundamentally cllanging it.

Earn of the fifteen events we have chronicled is part of three broad trends-increasing popu lation. growing technological prowess, and an exploding demand for space and resources exponentia ll y greater than the population increase itself. Every environmental and h uman ele­ ment has evolved accordingly. The geomorphology of the sta te ileast affected but not immune. Indian burning modified erosion processes while Spanish and American water transfers have brought this to a new order of magnitude. Mining. suburl>an development, and the road cuts of thousands of highways and rails shape the land on a local scale. Mod i fication of the hydrology of California has been a long saga culmi ­ n ati ng in the most complete spatial manipulation of wa ter in the world. Event after event influenced California’s most important resource and, hence, everything else dependent upon it. The Spanish introduced the appropriation doctrine. The gold rush brought elaborate flumes and distribution systems. Tile railroads added organizational frameworks. Urban needs spawned the Los Lobos Creek diversion, leading to arteries of water that feed the state’s cities. The Wright Act adopted appropria­ tion and established the framework for irrigation districts and massive interl>asin water transfers. Eacll innovation built on the knowledge and the technology of the previous hydrologic manipulators.
Tile biogeography of California is perhaps the clearest example of the mingling of new processes with a landsca pe mum modified by their predecessors. Indians burned California for thousands of years and shMply altered the profile of the fauna thdl also shaped the fore ts and grasslands. Palcogeographers have only begun to research the magnitude of the changes they wrought. ·n1e Spanish shattered Indian numbers and culture sending drastic reverbera tions through the ecosystems. At the same time they and later immigrants introduced hundreds of exotic plants and animals many of which are now domi­ nant species throughout the state. Americans accelerated this process, bri nging thousands of additional exotics, logging for the gold mines, and expanding their settlements in area and dist ribution wit h the aid of milroads and automobiles. They flowed in to the slate i n vast, resource­ demd nding num bers drawn by suburbs. cheap electric power, World War II, and a computer industry that dominates the nation. National forests and parks blunted this assault on the forests, yet even there the deliberate suppression of fire modified natural communities. Drainage of lakes and wetlands. the expansion of dgricu lture. drastic mdnipula­

t ion of the faum1, and the reorientation of the hydrology also added to

the ecological transformation. Yet each built upon a b11sc already humanized by the first Native Californian fire.
Even more visua ll y recognizable are the structures added to the land­ scape by successive waves of humanity. At the most basic level. there are the lines on the land. Township and Range property Jines. city boundaries derived from Spanish land grants. roads. urban street patterns. railroads. power lines. aq ued ucts, and the neat rows of irrigated crops punctuate all but the most ruggedly unfriendly environ­ ment. Then there is the pattern of sett lements. The Spanish chose the coast and loca ted ncar concent ra t ions of I ndia ns. Irrigation, m ines. ra i l roads, n nd s pecialt y agricu lt ure gave economic stre ngt h and popu l at ion t o some towns and regions while dcnying them to others. Technological innovations such as suburban ra ilroads. computers, and, more than anyth i ng else. the automobile led to new residentia l and comm ercial forms and their sprawl across the sta te. Mobility, the Hispanic heritage, and the Internet have helped sha pe the architectural display of California’ssettlements. And. underlyingeach and every settled place is the presence of water brought from near and far.
Fi nally. Ca li forn ia is a culture and a cu l t ural expression. It is an innovator. Western water systems, su bu rbs, na tiona l par ks, and la rge monocul­ t ura l agricult ure started or extensivel y developed in the slate. On the other hand, railroads, automobiles, electrification, and thousands of other influences ca me from the broader American experience. The Spa nish

left a legacy that is more strongly fell in modern Hispanic neighbor­

hoods than elsewhere. The mines and then railroads brought the Chi­ nese while racism concentrated them in urban ·ChinatownsCalifornia, as the end of the migratory trail for so many years, developed a vibrant and adaptive culture according to Pa rsons 0955). This has drawn Asian and Latin American immigrants in large numbers as well as other groups from with in and beyond the United States. Each group has imprin ted its identity on portions of the Ca li fomi11 landsca pe. The migra tion t hat has spawned Parsons’ cu l tura l adaptabi l it y stems from each and every even t we have identified.
During the development of ideas for this article we considered more than t 50 separate human events that led to processes that have shaped the visual landscape of California. We believe we have identified the fifteen most influential ones a lt hough we stand ready to receive sug­ gestions and arguments for others. From time to time we asked others for thei r ideas and received a number of suggestions that usu ally but not always agreed wi th ou rs. Some geogra phers insisted on including nat ural occurrences despi te our stipulation tha t they must be human generated events. This points out one limitation of our essay. I Jumans never act entirely outside the natura l world. Three events, the drought of 1862-63, the Dust Bowl and the Long Beach earthquake of t 933. come to mind as modifiers of human actions and adaptation. Yet it is

the human imprint on the land that we seek to ‘;’ndcrst nd and we posit that the events we have named are the most . nflucntoal.

To anticipate a question that may arise in readers’ minds. he next five events on our list were the establishment of the movoc ondustry, the arrival of the airplane in Cal ifornia, the Williamson Act which has helped preserve agricultural space, the Nati?nal Historic Prescrvatin Act (80

Sta t. 915), and the Centra l Valley ProJect. The l atter wa s a poon t of d os­

cussion beca use a lthough we have shown t hat the Wright Act led directly to i t, water ma n ipu lation in Cali fornia is of such import that we

were tempted to devote three events to it.

In sum, a review of the human imprint on California’s landscape. the look of the natural environment, the spatial pattern of settlement and economic activity. the size and character of structures. the latLiccwork of lines, and a myriad of other elements poi nts to the liftn events . we have described as most crit ical. A look at any geographocal questoon wi ll demonstrate their i mport. Why are there vineyards near Los Banos? The Spanish i ntrod uced the crop, the gold rush famili(o rizcd Americans with wine, the cumula tive legacy ofw(o ter mano pulatoon led to the Cah­ fornia Aqueduct, transm i ssion lin es bri ng electricit y to power the aqueduct’s pumpingstations, Interstate5 brings the trucks,suburbs house some workers, and computers allow state of the art management and technology to easily reach this quiet comer.
And what of the future? Will these remain the most significant fifteen events as new. possibly revolutionary changes in human cult u re , and tL>(:hnology occur? Computers may int rod uce even greater adatatoons in lifestyle and resou rce demand. Dependence on the automobolmay wa ne to some degree. The environ mental movement. expressed o n the parks and forests of the sta le, may strengthen and redaom more tern­ tory for the forests and wetlands that are themselves hu an ied constructs. Will the influence of the lndoans ever become an hostonc?l curiosity rather than a living factor in the appearance of the Cahfooa scene? While great events will occu r in the future possobly dosplacong some of ours from the top fifteen. these that we have presented will continue to play a role. Short of tcarin¥ a house compltely down we con tinue to build on the same foundatoon. Short of razo ng the human impri nt on California, all tha t follows will be shaped by these fifteen

Rercrence. s

Abbott, Carl. 1993. Tht ;\ldropolliGil fronhtr. Citin ln the:\lodtm Jlmtri(tm \\isl Tucson. AZ:.

University of Arizona Prns. , .

Andtrson, Kat . \ l and Moratto. . Michael. 1996. Na. tivt: Am(‘nr. ln Und Usc- Pr. ct:KeS
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