The Spooners of Montana de Oro Considered as Objects of Natural History
Central Coast Natural History Association Mindwalk, February 18, 2008
Copyright © by Howard S. (Dick) Miller
[Note: This talk was illustrated by a Power Point slide show of Spooner Ranch historic photos. Original photos and electronic copies are preserved in the library of the Morro Bay Natural History Museum, along with a CD of the PowerPoint presentation.]
I'd like to begin with some photographs of creatures in their natural habitats. They are pretty primitive views compared to the stunning photos in this year's CCNHA calendar, but they'll serve well enough to introduce the subjects of today's Mindwalk.
What generalizations can we draw from these images? As you can see, these creatures are wingless bipeds with opposing thumbs who stand erect, have binocular vision, and appear to have cultures at least as complex as those of ants and orcas. They are tool-using social animals, like beavers and some birds. They are mammals who nurture their young and form strong family bonds. Their scientific name is Homo Sapiens Spooner, but in these parts we usually call them Spooners for short. In years past they were frequently sighted along upper Toro Creek, around the shores of Morro Bay, and on the Pecho Coast to the south of here where the Irish Hills fall off into the sea. They are the sorts of interesting creatures whose lifeways and ecologies might well be featured in a natural history museum along with Peregrine Falcons, Elephant Seals, Native Americans, and other objects of natural history.
Generally speaking, however, we don't see them in natural history museums like ours. The obvious question, why not?, was inspired by two recently published books on California Native American ethnobotany. Ethnobotanists explore the complex biological, social, cultural, and spiritual relations between plants and people. Kat Anderson's Tending the Wild, and Jan Timbrook's Chumash Ethnobotany are simply wonderful, complementary, and should be on every California nature lover's bookshelf. Anderson's analysis, and especially Timbrook's title, got me thinking about what a Spooner ethnobotany might look like, and even more broadly, what a Spooner ethno-ecological history might look like. Anderson and Timbrook also got me wondering why we don't have either one.
The short answer to both questions is that the Spooners and their kind are us, whereas conventional objects of natural history are either its's or thems. We habitually don't look upon the Spooners as objects of natural history in the same way that we look upon, say, the Chumash, as objects of natural history.
Our habit of exhibiting uses in one place and its's and thems in another underscores the differences between history and natural history museums. I'll overdraw the distinctions a little for effect – but only a little.
The differences between the two kinds of museums are products of their collective history. Historical study and the social and biological sciences as we know them today, and the museums that came with them, all emerged in the 19th century, a time of triumphant imperial conquest by the North Atlantic powers – Great Britain, Germany, France, and the United States. It was also a time of triumphant Darwinism, which seemed to explain the survival of the fittest.
Evolving museums reflected their times. Their exhibits celebrated the mutual advancement of knowledge, economic progress, and masculine global dominion. It's highly symbolic that the monumental national museums built to display the loot of empire were often associated with some enormous national erection – the Smithsonian and the Washington Monument, the British Museum and Lord Nelson's hundred foot commemorative column in Trafalgar Square, the Parisian Louvre and The Museum of Man and the Eiffel Tower.
In the context of empire, history and natural history museums developed as mirror-image twins, complementary but reversed. History museums displayed the triumphs of the victors, almost always white males doing battle, making things or making millions. Natural history museums featured the curious artifacts of the vanquished, almost always people of darker hue, together with bats and bugs and other objects of natural history. History museums depicted the victors as dynamic, progressive, masters of their fate. Natural history museums showed the vanquished as lesser creatures, if fully human at all, stuck in the timeless past, helpless pawns of Nature. In short, the vanquished were thems, the mirror-image twins of Western European uses and their American descendants.
The uses, its, thems distinctions persist. Neither the Ronald Reagan Library, the John Wayne Museum, nor the Gene Autry National Center offer exhibits on short grass or chaparral ecology, even though the cowboys' Wild West makes no sense without this knowledge. Conversely, our own museum doesn't offer a natural history talk on the Spooners' clever use of non-native plants. Even more striking is the first interpretive exhibit visitors see on arriving here. At the head of the entry drive stands a stylized faux-realistic bronze sculpture representing itself as "reflecting life in the Morro Bay estuary." It depicts four creatures: a Noble Native American male, a Falcon, a Great Blue Heron, and a Bear. Notice what the sculpture does not represent: the presence of the Whites or Fairbanks or Stockings or Spooners who lived on these shores long enough to have entered local folklore and left their names on the land. Nor does the sculpture credit the Army Corps of Engineers who fashioned the estuary as we know it today.
Getting Right With the Spooners
It's time we got right with the Spooners. It's easy to imagine them as denizens of a rustic Good Olde Days historyland. But in reality the Spooners were in the vanguard of late 19th century newcomers who helped introduce modern, market-driven, mechanized factory farming to the Central Coast. It's equally hard to imagine the Spooners as "ethnics" – in part because they were uses. But ethnics they were, and in comparative human terms fairly unusual ones at that. By genealogy and culture the Spooners were Yankee descendants of northern Europeans. They were white, Protestant, middle class, self-assured strivers driven by their faith, family values, and work ethic, and advantaged by their ethnicity.
The Spooners favored the usual Euro-American complement of livestock -- beef and/or dairy cattle for income, horses for power and pleasure, pigs for home consumption and surplus sale. Their choices of animals determined in part their choices of plants – grasses and small grains for cattle and horse pasturage, feed, and bedding. Because the Spooners were commercial as well as subsistence farmers, fluctuating market demand dictated their choices of other crops – principally barley, oats, wheat, hay, and beans.
By the time the Spooners settled on the Pecho in 1892, nearly three centuries of Old World contact had long since modified California's aboriginal flora and fauna. Nearly two
hundred invasive Old World plants had already settled in, driving many native species out and launching a cascade of ecological change for all the native flora and fauna that survived. Meanwhile invasive new animal species, particularly cattle, horses, pigs, and sheep, drastically
altered Central Coast ecology through over-grazing, increased soil compaction, changing soil chemistry from exotic manures, and new patterns of soil erosion and offshore siltation.
Surviving native vegetation the Spooners didn't find useful was grazed out, burned out, cropped out, or driven out by competitive natural selection. In short order the Pecho became a market-sensitive, profit-maximizing American spread where every usable acre counted. It bore little resemblance to the carefully tended, mixed-use landscape of Chumash times, and even less
to the terminal coastal scrub and chaparral thickets currently favored by California state parks. Except for the steepest slopes, nearly every acre you can see from the Ranch House was grazed or plowed and planted within living memory. For all its celebrated beauty as pristine California wilderness, Montana de Oro State Park is best interpreted as an example of what happens when you let a once-prosperous farm go to weeds.
Most of the plants the Spooners cultivated were so exotic that they couldn't survive neglect. Their beans, wheat, and peas are long gone. So is the large family vegetable garden on the lower terrace north of Islay Creek. So is the citrus grove that once graced what is now the upper campground. Only a few botanical artifacts remain, notably Mrs. Spooner's geraniums spilling down the Islay Creek gully behind the ranch house, Mr. Spooner's cedar windbreaks in front of the ranch house and on the west end of his former orangerie, and the odd lot of decorative plantings surrounding the ruins of Quinn Spooner's house near the old vegetable garden.
History Natural History
As visitors enter the main gallery of our recently refurbished museum they see several panels announcing its organizing theme: Natural history and human history intertwine. Biological causes have historical effects. Historical causes have biological effects. These ecological imperatives deliberately swim against the traditional tide of natural history museum
practice that deliberately separated humankind from Nature, and human cousins from one another. In this regard the thrust of the new museum paralleled the forward-looking 1991 Spooner Ranch House Visitors' Center Interpretive Development Plan, which interpreted the Pecho past as an integrated historical/ecological whole.
Natural and human history have intertwined on the Pecho for some10,000 years. Like Pecho people before them, the Spooners pitted their cultural priorities, economic agendas, and personal preferences against the geographical and climatological realities of their coastal landscape. Like the people before them, everything they did had biological consequences. As illustrations, let's take a brief look at Spooner grazing, cropping, and dairying.
Grazing is what some animals do, and what humans sometimes try to manage. In aboriginal times careful tending kept local populations of deer and other useful grazers plentiful, but not so plentiful as to be a nuisance. In this and other regards Native American land use practices were deliberate, sophisticated, and sustained generations across the millennia. Kate Anderson and Jan Timbrook demonstrate that we have to rethink our tidy conventional distinctions between what we call "hunting" and "gathering" and "gardening" and "farming."
European contact, at first coastal and later overland, changed everything. Waves of pandemic disease decimated local human populations. As human predation declined grazer populations exploded – just in time for arriving Spanish settlers to mistake a brief artificial
population spike for California's mythic perpetual natural abundance. It's a delusion whose consequences we've been living with ever since.
From colonial times to the 1890s the Pecho was a remote, sparsely settled coastal outback grazed by free-ranging sheep and long horned Spanish cattle raised initially for
their hides and wool and tallow, and later for their meat. With the arrival of the rancher-farmer Spooners came fences to keep the stock out of the field crops, and fences to corral the dairy
herds close to the creamery for convenient milking twice a day. Keeping more animals in more confined spaces made Spooner era grazing practices the most intensive in Pecho history.
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